On May 13, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, which places tight limits on data collection by the National Security Agency and the FBI and makes other changes to the federal government’s surveillance practices. The House adopted the legislation on a vote of 338 to 88.
“Although the legislation does not go as far as we would like, it is an important first step toward protecting fundamental civil liberties and privacy, while still preserving the ability of the intelligence community to gather the targeted information it needs to help keep us safe,” said TCP president Virginia Sloan in a press release. She said she hoped the lopsided vote would “spur the Senate to quickly follow suit in passing this vital reform.”
As passed by the House, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 (H.R. 2048) would end the bulk collection of Americans’ records – including records collected under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the FISA pen register statute, or National Security Letters – by requiring the government to narrowly tailor its collection, and it would increase transparency by allowing communications providers to disclose in more detail the number of surveillance orders they receive.
In addition, the legislation would require the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to appoint a panel of security-cleared lawyers to advise the Court in cases involving novel or significant interpretations of law. Among other duties, these “friends of the court” may present legal arguments that advance the protection of individual privacy and civil liberties. And, it would require the FISC to declassify significant opinions, or prepare a summary for the public if declassification is not possible.
The Constitution Project released a report in May, 2014 urging the appointment of special advocate by the FISC to represent the public in certain cases, and setting forth requirements for making the advocate effective.
The issue now moves to the Senate for consideration. Unless Congress acts, Section 215 of the Patriot Act will sunset on June 1.
UPDATE: In a May 19 letter to Senate leaders, a coalition of advocacy organizations joined TCP in arguing against short-term reauthorization of the sunsetting statutes the NSA claims provide it legal authority for bulk collection.