NSA reform bill gathers steam

The preposterously named "USA Freedom Act" would curb bulk collection of Americans' communications data

Published October 29, 2013 4:31PM (EDT)

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.     (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Despite its title smacking of an almost parodied nationalism, the USA Freedom Act proposes to set important limits on the sprawling dragnet surveillance programs operated by the NSA.

On Tuesday, the very same Wisconsin Republican who authored the Patriot Act, Jim Sensenbrenner, introduced the USA Freedom Act to the House. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The legislation would end bulk domestic phone data collection practices -- like those carried out under the NSA's PRISM program, revealed to the public via Edward Snowden's leaks this summer. The bills also propose banning the NSA from sifting through foreign data collections to identify information related to U.S. citizens.

The Brennan Center's Elizabeth Goitein commented that the bill seemed to strike a sensible "middle ground" between enabling intelligence gathering for national security purposes and upholding Fourth and First Amendment protections. “This bill would go a long way toward restoring the presumption of privacy for the communications and personal information of law-abiding Americans,” Goitein said.

As the Guardian reported Tuesday, the proposed legislation has already garnered significant congressional and civil libertarian support, but will face an uphill battle into law, which may not be successful:

Both bills have already attracted significant support: Sensenbrenner claims 60 co-sponsors, including eight who either opposed or abstained from a July effort in the House to stop the bulk phone records collection, a number that would have swung the earlier vote against the NSA. Both bills will come through the judiciary committees, whose members are far more sceptical of the surveillance activities than the intelligence committees.

“The intelligence community now faces a trust deficit with the American public that compromises its ability to do its job,” Leahy and Sensenbrenner wrote in an op-ed for Politico on Tuesday. “It is not enough to just make minor tweaks around the edges. It is time for real, substantive reform.”

Those bills still face a tough ride through Congress, not least because they are up against Feinstein’s own surveillance legislation which will be marked up on Tuesday in a closed-door session of the Senate.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has launched a legal action against the NSA’s domestic phone records collection in a New York federal court, threw its support behind the Leahy-Sensenbrenner effort. “The legislation introduced today by Senator Leahy and Representative Sensenbrenner is a true reform bill that rejects the false and dangerous notion that privacy and our fundamental freedoms are incompatible with security,” said Michelle Richardson, the ACLU’s surveillance lobbyist.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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