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Government Surveillance

USA FREEDOM Act Moves Forward

Our favored legislation to reform the NSA’s surveillance programs, the USA FREEDOM Act is finally moving forward. Today, the House Judiciary Committee announced a markup of the USA FREEDOM Act for this Wednesday afternoon. It’s good to see Chairman Bob Goodlatte move forward this important piece of legislation. Congressional action on NSA surveillance is long overdue.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) is also reportedly set to announce a markup of the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act later this week. While a markup may make some improvements to the HPSCI bill, USA FREEDOM is presently superior to the HPSCI bill in numerous respects.

The author of USA FREEDOM, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, will introduce a manager’s amendment at the markup that makes several key changes. The amendment creates a prohibition – stronger than the original USA FREEDOM Act – on the bulk collection of records by requiring “specific selection terms” to be used as the basis of a records request. The amendment also creates a new authority for telephone call records, based on the Obama Administration’s proposal from earlier this year that prohibits bulk collection of phone records but allows the government to demand records from phone companies that are two “hops” from the target. Beyond this, the amendment would create new government reporting requirements, a declassification of significant FISA Court opinions, and establish a panel of outside experts that the FISA Court may draw on for input.

The USA FREEDOM ACT with the amendment would be much better than the status quo. Even with the amendment, the bill still meets the three major bulk collection reforms that CDT and a coalition of civil liberties groups asked for in a letter to Congress and the Administration last month.

USA FREEDOM, as amended, certainly does not solve all the problems raised by overbroad NSA surveillance. There are still some kinks that should be worked out with the amendment, such as a definition of “selection term,” and company reporting requirements (which are reportedly still under negotiation). Hopefully the House and Senate take swift action to advance this bill.

Congress still must address the many other significant human rights issues implicated by mass electronic surveillance and the undermining of Internet security, but prohibiting the bulk collection of phone, Internet, and other records would be a huge stride forward.