As deadline nears, Congress introduces new bills to end bulk NSA surveillance

The new bill lands with just over a month before the Patriot Act sunsets. Privacy advocates say the bill does not go far enough to protect Americans' privacy.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the sponsors of the new anti-NSA bill (Image via Senate.gov)

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate will introduce draft bills Tuesday that will effectively end the most egregious domestic surveillance programs by the National Security Agency.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT), aims to kneecap key provisions of the Patriot Act, which sunset on June 1, according to reports. The bill aims to balance the need to protect the country from terrorism, while protecting its citizens from invasive breaches of their privacy.

At the top of the bill's agenda will be "definitively" ending the NSA's bulk phone records collection program, Leahy said in comments.

Under the new bill, intelligence agencies, including the NSA, will have to request phone metadata -- which includes details about calls but not the contents -- from companies, so long as they have prior approval from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court.

The bill also aims to allow Silicon Valley technology companies to disclose more about the types of surveillance requests they receive.

The bill will also allow for a security-cleared advocate to be present at hearings in the FISA Court, which only hears the government's arguments for authorizing surveillance operations.

But privacy advocates were not happy with the bill.

"The bill does not go nearly far enough," said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, arguing that the bill would only make "incremental" improvements. "The disclosures of the last two years make clear that we need wholesale reform. Congress should let Section 215 sunset as it's scheduled to, and then it should turn to reforming the other surveillance authorities that have been used to justify bulk collection," said Jaffer.

With the deadline just over a month away, Congress has been anxious to fix the intelligence community's overreach made public by Edward Snowden's disclosures almost two years ago.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and ranking member John Conyers will co-sponsor a mirrored bill in the House.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who introduced the original Patriot Act in 2001 but denounced how it was used in the wake of the Snowden leaks, will also throw his name behind the House bill.

This bipartisan and bicameral effort is the latest move by lawmakers in recent weeks intent on fixing the intelligence community.

A number of bills have made their way into various congressional committees in the past few months, as the June 1 deadline rapidly approaches.

By far the most notable, the Freedom Act was widely lauded by privacy groups and the technology industry alike as the one-stop shop of privacy reform. It passed a 303-121 bipartisan vote last year, clearing the House. However, the bill fell short of advancing by a few votes in a lame-duck Senate session at the end of last year.

The deadline has also seen a similar effort in favor of extending the Patriot Act's provisions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced a bill earlier this month that would give the controversial law a five-year grace. McConnell, who has long defended the work of the intelligence agencies, put the bill up for fast-track, allowing the bill to skip edits and amendments at the committee level.

Some have argued that failing to act -- either to renew the law or to allow it to sunset -- would give the NSA an opportunity to challenge the legal void left once the law sunsets.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D- CA, 19th), whose California district includes Silicon Valley's powerhouses, said she and other lawmakers were "mindful" that the law is coming up to expiry, but warned its lapsing would "not solve the problem" of certain kinds of surveillance.

Some of the more controversial programs, such as tapping into transatlantic fiber cables and acquiring email and social networking messages, falls under an entirely different legal authorities.

Because the House is in recess next week and ahead of the Memorial Day holiday, the deadline for lawmakers to act is May 21.

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