Against the backdrop of the vast Edward Snowden scandal and a growing stack of news reports revealing massive top-secret data-gathering programs, Congress took its first step to curb government spying on ordinary Americans.
In a 303 to 121 vote, the House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act (House Resolution 3361), sending it to the Senate for consideration. The legislation aims to “rein in the dragnet collection of data” by the National Security Agency and other government entities while increasing the transparency of the foreign surveillance court, according to sponsor Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who was a strong backer of expanding government surveillance in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Amid reports of broad government sweeps for Americans’ phone records and other personal information under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations, Sensenbrenner now says, “I authored the Patriot Act, and this is an abuse of that law.”
Yet Sensenbrenner’s effort to guarantee Americans’ privacy has fallen short amid last-minute changes to his legislation in the House, say critics like Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat. Polis was an initial supporter of the legislation, but voted against it.
“Unfortunately, the USA Freedom Act, which I cosponsored as introduced, has been watered down and co-opted to the point that it creates the possibility that NSA could misuse the bill — contrary to the legislative intent — to conduct broad searches of communication records,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, also voted against the resolution. She said she initially supported it, but not after “significant changes were made late in the legislative process that would create loopholes that would allow collection of the very personal data we are trying to protect.”
“I voted against this bill because I am concerned that it would allow the NSA to conduct mass surveillance with little oversight,” she said in a statement. “I hope that we can return to that balance as the legislative process continues.”
Four of Colorado’s remaining five representatives (Republicans Mike Coffman, Doug Lamborn, Scott Tipton and Democrat Ed Perlmutter) voted in favor. Republican Representative Cory Gardner did not.
The legislation, as introduced, aimed, among other provisions, to end so-called “Patriot Act 215” collections of bulk data and require the government to more aggressively filter and discard information about Americans accidentally collected through controversial programs.
Despite reports about the breadth of NSA data fishing last year, the number of requests for Patriot Act 215 orders didn’t drop by much. In 2013, there were 178 applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — all of them approved, according to an April 30 public letter from U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The applications were for “certain business records (including the production of tangible things) for foreign intelligence purposes,” Kadzik wrote.
The number of requests in 2013 was down from 2012, when 212 Patriot Act 215 applications were granted. However, 2012 had seen a 900 percent rise in such applications from four years earlier.
Laura W. Murphy, who is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, said the resolution as passed by the House is imperfect, hinting it could spark a battle for fixes in the Senate.
“While far from perfect, this bill is an unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control NSA,” Murphy said. “While we share the concerns of many — including members of both parties who rightly believe the bill does not go far enough — without it, 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.”