House Committees Pass Watered-Down USA Freedom Act

Two House committees have passed a watered-down version of the USA Freedom Act, legislation originally introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) to curtail bulk collection of phone data by the National Security Agency, clearing the way for a vote by the full House.  The House Judiciary Committee adopted the revised bill on May 7, and the House Permanent Select Committee followed suit the next day.

“We are pleased that the House committees have moved toward enactment, but we are disappointed that the version of the bill as amended by the committees preserves some of NSA’s most sweeping and invasive practices,” said senior counsel Katherine Stern.  The Constitution Project had earlier expressed strong support for the original bipartisan, bi-cameral version of the bill.

Instead of an outright ban on bulk collection contained in the original bill, the new House version prohibits NSA from collecting business records without “specific selectors” to identify particular individuals or groups under suspicion.  Depending on how the term gets defined, Stern said that “specific selectors” language could permit the spy agency to continue sweeping up large amounts of data.  The committee-passed version of the bill also preserves the NSA’s warrantless search loophole under Section 702 of FISA, permitting the NSA to review, and even use in court, the content of U.S. persons’ phone calls, emails, address books, and other communications it obtains “incidental” to foreign surveillance collections.

The bill as amended also weakens the proposal for a civil liberties advocate at the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, providing only for a panel of advisors to be employed entirely at the court’s discretion.  “We believe the FISC should be obligated to hear an advocate for civil liberties whenever it weighs the government’s interests against the public’s right to privacy,” Stern said.

TCP joined and the Project On Government Oversight in calling for stronger reporting requirements in the bill and better public representation before the FISC.  Leahy indicated he would attempt to reinsert some of the missing protections when the Senate considers the legislation.

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