Bulk Collection Battle Moves to Senate

House Votes to Curtail NSA Phone Record Program
Bulk Collection Battle Moves to Senate
On Deck: Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy

Supporters of a stronger version of the USA Freedom Act pin their hopes on the Senate after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a watered-down version of the bill aimed at curtailing the federal government's collection of Americans' phone call records.

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The House on May 22 voted 303 to 121 to approved the bill that Republican leaders and the Obama White House agreed to revise days before the vote, making changes in language that civil libertarians contend makes the measure ambiguous in defining bulk collection (see Row Deepens Over Bulk Collection Bill).

Supporters of the measure highlighted the historic impact of the bill, even with the changes. "We have taken steps to roll back some of the aspects of government surveillance," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.

But opponents said they voted against the measure because they don't believe it would adequately halt the bulk-collection program. "It was my hope that today's legislation would have ended this unconstitutional spying by the government, but unfortunately last-minute changes to the original bill made it ineffective in stopping the NSA's abuse of power," said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to consider the legislation in June, and its chairman, Patrick Leahy, has expressed concerns about some important reforms being removed. "I was disappointed that the legislation passed today does not include some of the meaningful reforms contained in the original USA Freedom Act," Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement after the House vote. "I will continue to push for these important reforms when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the USA Freedom Act next month."

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who co-sponsored the bill but voted against it, called on the Senate "to work expeditiously and approve legislation that leaves no room for bulk collection to continue. ... I am troubled by the changes that were made to the bill behind closed doors that stripped key protections and open the door to bulk collection."

'Wish This Bill Did More'

On the House floor, bill sponsor Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, also lamented the changes, but he nevertheless voted for the amended bill. He cited the administration's insistence that the bill be reworded so it would not hamper intelligence and law enforcement agencies' core operations.

"Let me be clear, I wish this bill did more," Sensenbrenner said. "... The negotiations for this bill were intense, and we had to make compromises, but this bill still deserves support. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Today, we have the opportunity to make a powerful statement: Congress does not support bulk collection."

Another of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., blamed President Obama for the changes. "If we had the fortune of having a commander-in-chief firmly dedicated to the preservation of this program as is, we may have been able to protect it in its entirety," said Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "With that not being the case, I believe this is a workable compromise that protects the core function of a counterterrorism program we know has saved lives around the world."

Bill Seen as 'Ambiguous and Exploitable'

Civil libertarians and privacy groups supported the legislation until earlier this week when the House Rules Committee, reflecting negotiations between House Republican leaders and the White House, amended the bill to redefine the phrase "specific selection term," which describes and limits who or what the NSA is allowed to surveil. Redefining the phrase, said critics of the change, made the bill ambiguous and exploitable.

"The USA Freedom Act only prohibits bulk collection if you define bulk collection as nationwide surveillance," said Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of a number of privacy and civil liberties groups that supported the bill until it was amended. "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."

Lawmakers wrote the USA Freedom Act in response to the leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that revealed that the NSA obtained classified court orders to gather logs of phone calls made by Americans (see NSA's Prism: Balance Security, Privacy).

A secret court had interpreted existing law as allowing the NSA to collect phone calling records systematically to seek out associates of terrorism suspects. The USA Freedom Act would allow the agency to obtain only the calling records of people up to two links from a suspect.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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