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House Members Join Hands to Pass 'Weak' NSA Reform

Dismayed civil liberties groups say they are now looking to the Senate for a better version of the bill

US Congress on Capitol Hill, Washington DC. (Photo: Bjoertvedt / Wikimedia Creative Commons)

A "watered down" NSA reform bill that may curb, but certainly not end, the bulk surveillance of innocent people passed the House Thursday morning with bi-partisan support.

The USA Freedom Act passed with a final vote of 303 to 121, thanks to backing from a majority of Republicans and Democrats. In the end, 51 Republicans and 70 Democrats voted against.

The bill, conceived as a response to public outrage following revelations made possible by leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, was initially supported by some civil liberties groups.  However, as previously reported by Common Dreams, their approval diminished sharply as a key protections were stripped from the measure while loopholes were added.

Critics charge that pressure from the Obama administration on House leaders was instrumental in weakening the bill.

The new version of the bill (pdf) includes a more expansive definition of the "specific selection term," which determines who the government is allowed to spy on by compelling phone companies to turn over their records.

It also lowers the bar on requirements for what the telecom industry must report to the public about records requests from the government.

Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) immediately released the following tweet:

Immediately following the bill's passage, organizations indicated they are now looking to the Senate for a stronger version of the bill.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation declared:

“The USA FREEDOM Act leaves open the possibility for the government to engage in broad surveillance of cities, regions, or even entire states under a single court order, and to obtain records on the Internet traffic of large numbers of people," said Center for Democracy and Technology Senior Counsel Harley Geiger in a statement. "We cannot support a bill that continues to authorize untargeted surveillance at such a massive scale.”

Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office stated, “While we share the concerns of many – including members of both parties who rightly believe the bill does not go far enough – without [the bill] we would be left with no reform at all, or worse, a House Intelligence Committee bill that would have cemented bulk collection of Americans’ communications into law. We will fight to secure additional improvements in the Senate.”

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