Two Competing House Bills to Restrict NSA Phone Data Collection Jockey for Lead

Thursday, May 08, 2014
James Sensenbrenner (photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)

In one corner of the U.S. House of Representatives, reform legislation has been introduced aimed at restricting the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial collection of Americans’ phone data. This bill, the USA Freedom Act, has gotten qualified support from privacy advocates and civil libertarians. In another corner of the House, a competing measure has been introduced, the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, which doesn’t go as far as NSA critics would like.


Observers now wonder which plan will make it out of the House, and in what shape, considering the changes already made in one of them.


The USA Freedom Act is sponsored by Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and championed by the House Judiciary Committee. It would limit the NSA collection of bulk phone records belonging to Americans and end the NSA’s storing of such records, leaving them in the hands of telecommunications companies, which would keep them for only 18 months (for landline records) instead of the NSA storing them for five years. The bill would also restrict government searches of the records to callers two links removed from a suspect.


The alternate bill, sponsored by Representatives Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) and Dutch Ruppersberger (R-Maryland) and backed by the House Intelligence Committee, would also do all of the above.


But there are key differences between the plans.


The USA Freedom Act specifies that the data-collection program could be used only to thwart terrorist threats. The Rogers/Ruppersberger bill would also allow the records to be accessed for espionage cases, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other national-security threats.


The Freedom Act would also require a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to “agree that a phone number meets a standard of suspicion before it could be used, except in emergencies,” according to The New York Times. The other bill uses an after-the-fact model of judicial review, although staffers said that might be changed.


“The details still need to be hammered out, but the [amended Freedom Act] bill is certainly better than the one that the House Intelligence Committee will be considering this week, which is a non-starter,” Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, said in a statement.


The USA Freedom Act contained provisions important to civil libertarians before its backers watered down their plan.


Provisions stripped from the USA Freedom Act include:

·         Creating a “special advocate” to represent the public in classified proceedings before the FISC.

·         Limiting searches to investigations already launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

·         Allowing telephone and Internet companies to tell their customers and the public more about how often the government collects data or content via FISC court orders or national-security letters.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Rival House Bills Aim to Rein In N.S.A. Phone Data Program (by Charlie Savage, New York Times)

NSA Reform: Do You Support The Lesser Of Two Evils, Or Hope For Something Better? (by Mike Masnick, Techdirt)

House Panels Race Against Each Other to Reform NSA Spying (by Dustin Volz, National Journal)

Looks Like 'Compromise' Has Been Reached On NSA Reform Bills (by Mike Masnick, Techdirt)

House Leaders Sideline Anti-NSA Lawmakers (by Dustin Volz, National Journal)

Conservative Co-Author of Patriot Act Readies Bipartisan Bill to Curb NSA Overreach (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Bipartisan Senate Bill Seeks to Rein in NSA Surveillance Powers (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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