House Passes Watered-Down NSA Reform Bill

May 22, 2014

This morning, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 303-121 to pass a heavily revised version of the USA FREEDOM Act. The bill, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, was modified in the House Judiciary Committee to remove some of the civil liberties protections in the original bill, but it retained a prohibition on the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records. The House Rules Committee then further modified the bill to reflect changes that the Obama administration and House leadership desired. The changes substantially weakened the bill’s privacy protections and transparency provisions.

The following statement may be attributed to Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program:

“To call this a disappointment is an understatement. The president has publicly called for an end to bulk collection, and the House managed to forge a broad bipartisan consensus on a bill that would do just that. But behind closed doors, the administration worked to undermine the bill and eliminate the clarity it would have provided.

“The bill that came out of the judiciary and intelligence committees contained critically important language that would have ended the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and other types of data. By contrast, the version passed by the House is frustratingly ambiguous on this point.

“In particular, while the previous bill would have required any request for records to be tied to a clearly defined set of ‘specific selection terms,’ the bill that just passed leaves the definition of ‘specific selection terms’ open. This could allow for an overly broad and creative interpretation, which is something we’ve certainly seen from the executive branch and the FISA Court before.

“It’s particularly galling that the administration objected, in secret, to certain provisions that would have allowed companies to report more detailed statistics about government requests. In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that ‘the major takeaway’ from the Snowden disclosures was that ‘we must lean in the direction of transparency, wherever and whenever we can.’ Apparently this testimony was no more reliable than his flat denial in March 2013 that the NSA was collecting any type of data on millions of Americans.

“If the Senate wants to pursue meaningful NSA reform, it must restore the protections that were stripped out on the House side. The original USA FREEDOM Act remains the most promising and comprehensive attempt to protect Americans’ privacy.”