A House committee has voted unanimously to rein in the NSA

May 7, 2014

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). (Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post)

A key House committee has approved a package of NSA reforms that would end the spy agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, nearly a year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the program's existence.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 32-0 Wednesday to rein in the NSA with the USA FREEDOM Act, a measure that places new requirements on the government when it comes to gathering, targeting and searching telephone metadata for intelligence purposes.

In addition to prohibiting the NSA from engaging in what the bill's sponsors have called "dragnet surveillance," the bill would also require authorities to get permission from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on a case-by-case basis. It would establish a panel of privacy experts and other officials to serve as a public advocate at the court. And it would also give businesses more latitude to tell the public about requests it receives from the government for user data.

The bill represents "the best chance in a decade" to correct an imbalance between national security and privacy, said co-sponsor Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). It is the first surveillance reform bill to proceed to the House floor.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who helped write the bill and introduced a version of it in the Senate in October, vowed to bring up the measure there this summer.

"The committee’s overwhelming, bipartisan vote makes clear that there is broad support in Congress, after years of debate, to recalibrate the nation’s surveillance authorities and put a real oversight structure in place," Leahy said.

Civil liberties advocates are calling the measure a modest step; a number of amendments by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) to strengthen the bill failed to pass.

"The committee’s actions are a step towards bringing the government’s surveillance regime in line with the Constitution, even as more reforms are needed," said the American Civil Liberties Union's Laura Murphy. "Today’s milestone vote is a direct result of the important disclosures made by Edward Snowden."

The judiciary committee's bill is considered more aggressive than legislation being considered in the House Intelligence Committee. Reports this week suggested that House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) announced his markup on Monday to preempt the Intelligence Committee's own markup session Thursday.

The Intelligence Committee may now consider the USA FREEDOM Act and try to reach a compromise with the Judiciary Committee, particularly on the issue of FISA Court approval of intelligence requests.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · May 7, 2014