Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper listens during a retirement ceremony at the National Security Agency March 28, 2014 in Fort Meade, Maryland
A bill to curb the NSA's surveillance powers, including ending its bulk metadata collection program, is moving forward after a House committee voted unanimously in its favor during a markup session on Wednesday. The bill is now one step closer to a floor vote by the full House of representatives.
The bill, called the USA Freedom Act, is one of many proposed by legislators in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. The USA Freedom Act aims to end the NSA's bulk collection of data and the controversial phone records collection program, which lets the NSA collect the phone metadata of virtually every American.
The House Judiciary Committee showed bipartisan support for the bill, which is now co-sponsored by 143 representatives. Introduced by Patriot Act author Jim Sensenbrenner (R.-Wisc.) in October, it's the NSA reform bill that pushes for more significant reform, according to privacy advocates.
If the bill does gets enacted, it will force the NSA to get specific permissions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to access a target's metadata records directly from telecom companies.If the bill does gets enacted, it will force the NSA to get specific permissions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to access a target's metadata records directly from telecom companies.
The bill also proposes to reduce the number of people the NSA can reach when targeting a phone number. Until now, an NSA analyst could access the phone metadata records of people three "hops," or connections, away from a suspected terrorist telephone number. This bill would require that reach to be limited to just two hops; if an NSA analyst targeted a certain phone number, he could look at all the target's contacts (one hop), plus all the contacts of those contacts (two hops).
Both these proposals — the end to the bulk collection program and the limitation of hops — were endorsed by President Barack Obama during his NSA reform speech in January. The Obama administration, however, has not endorsed the USA Freedom Act explicitly.
During the markup session, legislators also agreed to add a transparency amendment, which essentially codifies the agreement reached at the end of January between tech companies and the Department of Justice on how much information the Internet giants can reveal regarding data requests from the NSA, and permits even more transparency.
The more extreme amendments, mostly from Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), however, were voted down.
Representatives showed the bill has bipartisan support, although many admitted its current version is not perfect. Sensenbrenner called it "a very strong compromise." Jerrold Nadler (D.-N.Y.) said the USA Freedom Act is "admittedly not perfect" but also "the first and perhaps only chance in a decade to begin to right the balance between national security and civil liberties."
Their words seemed to echo the comments of privacy and civil liberties supporters in the lead-up to Wednesday's markup session.
"The new USA Freedom Act is far from perfect, but it’s our best shot at meaningful NSA reform that can pass Congress anytime soon," said Kevin Bankston, the policy director for the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, in a statement on Wednesday morning.
It's still unclear, however, when the bill will be voted on by the House.It's still unclear, however, when the bill will be voted on by the House.
The House Intelligence committee is scheduled to vote on the USA Freedom Act on Thursday, right after it considers an competing NSA reform bill, the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, which doesn't have the same kind of support from the privacy community.
If it finally gets approved by the House, the USA Freedom Act will need to go through the Senate as well before being signed into law by Obama. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced the bill in the Senate and said on Wednesday that he plans on making the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on it this summer.
Leahy also committed to push for even stronger reform. In a statement, he specifically mentioned the need to reform National Security Letters, special data requests used by U.S. government agencies like the FBI when investigating national security matters), to create a special advocate at the FISA Court, and add even more transparency measures.