For the first time since Edward Snowden revealed some of the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) surveillance programs last June, a congressional committee has voted to send legislation intended to curb the government’s spying power on for a full vote. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed a version of the USA Freedom Act, considered by civil liberties advocates to be among the strongest of several competing reform bills.
But what lawmakers voted unanimously to approve is a trimmed down version that is narrower in significant ways. The revision is the result of an agreement crafted by members of the Judiciary Committee— including Republican chairman Bob Goodlatte, who voted previously against an attempt to limit the NSA’s reach—in a bid to win wider support. In its compromised form the bill is more specifically focused on the phone records program and the statute that authorizes it, Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Under the amended version of the bill, the government itself would no longer be allowed to hold a database of people’s calling records, and would have to seek a judge’s order before collecting data held by the telecom companies—a change that President Obama has said he would support. The bill would also increase transparency by allowing phone companies to inform the public about the requests for data they receive.
“I think we can call it a milestone. It is the first bill that’s really got momentum behind it and that would truly rein in the bulk collection programs,” said Gabe Rottman, legislative council for the American Civil Liberties Union. Still, he acknowledged that the amended version “is a compromise bill, and it’s not as strong as the original sense of the proposal.”
Cut out of the amended version is a ban on unauthorized “back door” searches, the practice of mining a database of foreigners’ communications for the emails and phone calls of American citizens. Such searches are made under a different authority, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which lawmakers left untouched during Wednesday’s markup. The amendment also softened reforms to the secret court that authorizes the NSA’s surveillance activities, and preserved the requirement that the government need only prove “reasonable articulable suspicion” that records sought are relevant to an open investigation—the NSA’s preferred relevancy standard.
“Right now, [the USA Freedom Act] is good on one small piece of the surveillance pie,” said Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It is a good step towards fixing Section 215, but it’s lacking in what the USA Freedom Act originally envisioned, which was an overarching bill that touched on many of the different spying authorities and activities we’ve learned about.”
California representative Zoe Lofgren proposed a number of amendments intended to restore the bill to its wider scope. “The biggest disappointment I have about the [amended version] is that it took meaningful reform… and watered it down significantly,” Lofgren said as she argued for reinstating the ban on back door searches. But Lofgren’s revisions were shot down even by James Sensenbrenner, the Republican co-author of the original USA Freedom Act, who summed up the prevailing attitude when he cautioned his colleagues “not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”