Senate Bill Would Prohibit “Bulk Collection” of Americans’ Records; Other Programs Still Await Reform

July 29, 2014

Today, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a revised version of the USA FREEDOM Act.  The bill, which would prohibit bulk collection of Americans’ business records and increase transparency and accountability in surveillance, has the best chance of any stand-alone bill of becoming law in this session of Congress.

“The bill would take a key step forward by prohibiting bulk collection of Americans’ phone, financial, and credit records,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program. “This would be the first significant restriction Congress has placed on intelligence agencies’ ballooning spy apparatus since 9/11.”

“This version of the bill restores many of the reforms that were stripped from the companion bill as it moved through the House,” added Goitein. “It’s a much stronger, more privacy-oriented bill than what the House passed two months ago. But it would not be a cure-all. The bulk collection program is the tip of a massive iceberg. Until Congress addresses the collection and use of Americans’ calls and e-mails under authorities that supposedly target foreigners, the privacy of all of our communications is at risk.”

“Sen. Leahy’s bill should be the start of comprehensive intelligence reform, not the end,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program. “Over the last year we have seen that traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign intelligence programs don’t hold. When the United States uses overbroad authorities to collect information about people overseas, it inevitably picks up reams of information about Americans at home. The privacy of both Americans and foreigners would be better protected of U.S. surveillance was targeted at well-defined national security threats.” 

Background

Introduced after the Snowden disclosures last year, the original bill made sweeping reforms to a wide range of surveillance practices. Although the version of the bill that emerged from the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees was less comprehensive, privacy advocates still supported the legislation. Advocates withdrew their support, however, after closed-door talks between intelligence officials and House leadership on the eve of the floor vote further weakened the bill.

Unlike the House approved version, the revised Senate bill introduced today would prohibit bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, along with other records held by third parties, by requiring the government to use “specific selection terms” when applying to the FISA Court for collection orders. It also would require the Director of National Intelligence to publicly release redacted versions or summaries of significant FISA Court opinions, as well as detailed statistics on the government’s use of surveillance authorities. And it would create a panel of attorneys who could be called upon by the FISA Court to argue on behalf of privacy interests in court proceedings.

The bill does not, however, attempt to reform the NSA’s largest and most intrusive surveillance programs: the domestic collection of international communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and the overseas collection of communications and other data under Executive Order 12333. While these programs nominally target foreigners overseas, they “incidentally” sweep up Americans’ calls and e-mails in amounts that likely dwarf the NSA’s telephone metadata program.

To set up an interview, please contact: Desiree Ramos Reiner, 646-292-8321, Desiree.Reiner@nyu.edu