NSA Critics Hopeful as 'True Reform Bill' Introduced to House and Senate

The bipartisan USA FREEDOM ACT takes aim at bulk phone data collection and international spying

A bill introduced to both the Senate and the House on Tuesday aimed at curbing NSA spying powers was greeted with more hope than skepticism by a spectrum of critics eager for a meaningful overhaul of the secret surveillance dragnet.

Penned by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who originally drafted the Patriot Act in 2001, the USA FREEDOM ACT takes aim at some of the most broadly criticized components of NSA spying: bulk collection of U.S. phone data and warrant-less searches of foreign targets.

The bill was introduced as spy chiefs James Clapper and General Keith Alexander are questioned by an increasingly aggressive House Intelligence Committee Tuesday, following recent revelations that the U.S. systematically spies on even its closest allies, including tapping the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"[T]he intelligence community now faces a trust deficit with the American public that compromises its ability to do its job. It is not enough to just make minor tweaks around the edges. It is time for real, substantive reform," Leahy and Sensenbrenner wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday in Politico.

The bill has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate and over 70 in the House, cutting across party lines, The Hillreports.

Supporters say it shows that politicians are forced to contend with mass outrage. "After the Amash amendment's razor-thin loss, and the introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act with dozens of cosponsors, it is increasingly clear that many in the halls of power are listening to the tens of millions across this country who know that the NSA must be restrained," said Demand Progress executive director David Segal.

Yet, staunch NSA supporters have vowed to put up a fight against this bill. "I will do everything I can to prevent this [phone data] program from being canceled," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) declared earlier this month, The Hillreports. Feinstein is expected to introduce her own competing bill Tuesday that would protect NSA collection of phone data and other powers.

Furthermore, the bill falls short of more aggressive calls for reform, including legislation penned by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who calls for a total repeal of the Patriot Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union provides a summary of USA FREEDOM Act's key provisions:

  • It would end the bulk collection of Americans' records shared with third parties and put reasonable limits on Patriot Act powers targeted at people in the U.S. The new restrictions would apply not only to phone records collected under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, but national security letters and pen registers that have also been abused.
  • It would amend the 2008 FISA Amendments Act to require court orders before the government could use American information collected during foreign intelligence operations.
  • It would increase transparency by allowing communications providers to disclose the number of surveillance orders they receive, mandate the government publish how many people are subject to surveillance orders, and make public significant FISA Court opinions since July 2003.
  • It would create a public advocate that could advise the secret surveillance court in certain cases.

The ACLU threw their full support behind the bill. "The last five months have proven that the NSA cannot be trusted with the surveillance authorities they have been given by a secret court without the knowledge or approval of the American people," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel at the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "The legislation introduced today by Sen. Leahy and Rep. Sensenbrenner is a true reform bill that rejects the false and dangerous notion that privacy and our fundamental freedoms are incompatible with security."

EmptyWheel.net blogger Marcy Wheeler says that the USA FREEDOM Act is simply the "middle ground" between competing reform bills. She writes that it "would limit the existing laws to what the publicly stated intent of them was when originally passed, which would dramatically curtail the exposure of completely innocent Americans to such spying."


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