House ready to approve curbs on NSA spying

Privacy and civil liberties activists denounced the measure, saying it had been 'gutted'

National Security Agency Headquarters (AP)

National Security Agency Headquarters (AP)

The House is poised to take the first significant step to change the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American phone records, a compromise bill that is displeasing many civil liberties activists.

The USA Freedom Act would codify a proposal made in January by President Barack Obama, who said he wanted to end the NSA’s practice of collecting the “to and from” records of nearly every American landline telephone call under a program that searched the data for connections to terrorist plots abroad.

The bill, scheduled for a House vote Thursday, instructs the phone companies to hold the records for 18 months and let the NSA search them in terrorism investigations in response to a judicial order. The program was revealed last year by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

“The bill’s significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system,” the White House said in a statement Wednesday endorsing the legislation.

Privacy and civil liberties activists denounced the measure, saying it had been “gutted” to win agreement from lawmakers, particularly on the Intelligence Committee, who supported the NSA phone records program.

“This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ private information,” Nuala O’Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.

“The bill now offers only mild reform and goes against the overwhelming support for definitively ending bulk collection,” she added.

House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who represents a liberal district outside of Los Angeles, said the bill is perhaps the most significant action Congress will take in response to the Snowden leaks. The former NSA contractor handed journalists documents that revealed a host of once-secret NSA surveillance programs, including some that sweep in the personal information of Americans even as they target foreigners.

Outrage over the programs that Snowden publicized brought together conservatives and liberals who favor civil liberties, while the administration and congressional leadership resisted changing what they considered a useful counterterror tool.

“I think there’s been remarkable convergence on the issue,” Schiff said. “It wasn’t long ago that it was a real struggle with the idea of ending bulk collection. I think it’s a very good bill.”

Schiff said he wished the bill had provided for an independent public advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret judicial body that sets the legal parameters for NSA surveillance that touches on Americans. Such an advocate could challenge the government’s legal positions on what surveillance is permissible, he said. As it stands, the FISA court only hear from the government. No one represents the American public, whose data is being collected, or the terror suspect in court.

Instead, the law includes “a fairly weak” provision for friend of the court briefs, which are already allowed under existing law.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the reform process,” Schiff said.

In another change, the original bill required annual public reports by the government estimating, to the nearest 100, how many Americans were subject to various categories of secret intelligence surveillance, according to OpentheGovernment, a coalition promoting government transparency.

Those requirements were dropped from the bill, the group said.
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2 Responses to "House ready to approve curbs on NSA spying"

  1. woody188  May 22, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Did you get that?

    The whole NSA program is illegal under the Constitution, but the USA Freedom Act will codify (set a precedent into law) the actions after the fact so they will continue to spy on all your communications. This is how government encroaches on freedom. Create a problem and then “fix” the problem.

    Everything is still done in secret. There is no way to challenge any status or category one might have been labelled by the government. One will not know they are under scrutiny until they are snatched off the street and whisked away to a torture prison on the other side of the globe, or until their daughter’s wedding is bombed by a drone. Ain’t freedom great?

    It’s also important to note the concentration on the phone bulk collection program. They hope you’ll forget they are also collecting all you email, instant messenger, Facebook posts, this very message I post on this website, everything that flows across the Internet for their prying eyes.

    Don’t let up on this issue. There is a delicate balance between liberty and security. The founders of our nation recognized this balance and laid out the restrictions for our government to follow in our Bill of Rights. The government has decided to ignore the Constitution and violate our Bill of Rights. It is now up to the people to show the government we won’t stand for it.

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