WASHINGTON – The US House of Representatives passed landmark reforms Thursday curbing bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records, the first step toward restricting intelligence-gathering by the National Security Agency since Edward Snowden divulged the secret program last year.
But the reforms, backed by the White House, lost the support of civil liberties groups and tech companies like Google and Microsoft, after the Obama administration demanded changes that critics say watered down strict limits on collection of phone records and other personal data.
Despite an eruption of controversy in the run-up to the vote, Republicans and Democrats largely got behind the reforms, approving the legislation 303-121.
For the first time in decades, “we have taken steps to roll back some of the aspects of government surveillance,” said Democrat John Conyers, a key backer of the legislation.
Some lawmakers were furious that the White House demanded last-minute changes to the bill to allow for broader interpretation of which information could be collected, and from whom.
After intense closed-door talks between House leaders and administration officials, enough wording was modified to substantially alter the bill that passed unanimously through two committees on May 8.
Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican author of the Patriot Act that gave intelligence agencies broad powers after the September 11 2001 attacks, but who became a critic of surveillance overreach, said the bill marked a viable compromise that retained government ability to protect national security and civil liberties.
“The days of the NSA indiscriminately vacuuming up more data than it can store will end with the USA Freedom Act,” Sensenbrenner said.
Companies storing the telephone records, which include phone numbers, dates and times of calls, but not content, are given broader discretion to disclose their cooperation with the government.
And safeguards have been inserted that compel authorities to notify Congress of policy changes regarding the surveillance program, preventing abuse, according to lawmakers.
“The NSA might still be watching us, but now we can watch them,” Sensenbrenner said.
Continued mass surveillance?
Congressman Mike Honda blasted the administration for “drastically” weakening the bill, saying it now “leaves open the possibility the bulk surveillance could still continue.”
The measure is criticized as weakening public protections by changing a proposed public advocate at the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court to a panel of experts that would review court decisions.
In the original bill, the NSA no longer would have been allowed to use secret court orders to gather telephone data on unlimited millions of Americans.
The reforms would only allow the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain records of people up to two “hops” from a suspect.
But the alterations did not sit well with tech firms.
The amended language has “moved in the wrong direction,” opening up “an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data,” said the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others.
The bill now awaits action by the Senate, where Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy has vowed to introduce tougher reforms next month.
Several civil liberties groups warned that the House bill marked a cave-in to White House pressure to maintain some forms of mass surveillance, such as collection of records from an entire area code or city.
“The Senate should pass much stronger reforms ensuring greater transparency, robust judicial review, equal rights for non-US persons, and a clear, unambiguous ban on mass spying,” Amnesty International’s Zeke Johnson said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union came out in favor of the compromise, saying that while far from perfect, it marked an “unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control NSA.”
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