WASHINGTON — It was one year ago this week that details about American surveillance programs began leaking out into the media, and overhauling that system is back on Congress’s agenda.
Later this month, the Senate, led in part by a committee on which both Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken sit, will try its hand at passing a reform bill. Lawmakers will have a choice to make: accept House-passed legislation that privacy advocates say is too watered down to do any good, or try pushing through a beefed-up bill stronger than what the Obama administration, for one, has supported.
In statements to MinnPost, Klobuchar and Franken didn’t say how they’d vote on the House-passed bill if it came before them, but both said they have concerns with the House’s end product.
The bill in question is the USA Freedom Act. After last year’s rash of NSA revelations from former contractor Edward Snowden, it was moving through Congress with broad bipartisan support even a month ago, when the House Judiciary Committee passed it unanimously on May 7. The legislation accomplished many of the main goals outlined by privacy advocates after the NSA programs came to light: its main objectives are preventing surveillance agencies from collecting bulk data about Americans’ communications and forcing the government to justify to a court (albeit a secret one) its reasons for requesting and analyzing any of that data.
But the House Rules Committee, the bill’s last stop before hitting the House floor, rewrote several sections of the bill, changing it enough for privacy and civil liberties groups to drop their support for what they considered a watered-down product.
Their concern is that the changes essentially gave the government broader powers than what had originally been crafted by the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees (a Republican and a Democrat respectively). In one section, for example, the revisted bill expands the list of data the government can justify collecting from communications companies. Advocates say the original bill had stronger language, and the new version could give the government a loophole to collect a lot more information than is necessary. (The Washington Post walks through some of the specific changes here).
The White House ended up supporting the final bill, saying its “significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system.”
Support sagged, but didn’t sink
But civil liberties and tech groups dropped their enthusiasm for the bill, and quickly. New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute called the new legislation a “substantially weakened reform bill.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation said it “cannot support a bill that doesn’t achieve the goal of ending mass spying.” Writing in the New York Times, the ACLU said the bill “would leave the door open to the same kind of abuse we’ve seen,” though still called it an important step in curbing government surveillance.
Support for the bill sagged on Capitol Hill, but not enough to sink it — when the House brought it up on May 22, it still passed easily, 303-121. But some of the bill’s original co-sponsors dropped their support after the legislation was changed, as did many liberal Democrats, including Minnesota Reps. Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Rick Nolan, all thanks to the new language within the bill.
“The USA Freedom Act that passed out of the Judiciary Committee was a step in the right direction, but the watered-down version I voted against on the floor of the House of Representatives did not adequately protect Americans’ privacy,” Ellison said in a statement. “The only hope for real intelligence reform now is that the Senate strikes the right balance.”
In an interview, Nolan said he “was very disappointed because I had intended to support” a bill he considered a good check on broad government surveillance powers.
“When government is given too much power, eventually it will abuse it,” he said. “You can’t read history without coming to that conclusion, which is why I wanted to rein it in a bit.”
Senate to consider bill
Senators now get their chance to review the bill. The Senate Intelligence Committee was scheduled to hold its first hearing on the legislation this week, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which both Klobuchar and Franken sit, could hold a hearing on bill sometime this month.
Committee chairman Patrick Leahy was one of the main authors of the original USA Freedom Act, so he could choose to revive the bill and its original language if he wanted to. In a statement, Klobuchar indicated she preferred the original bill.
“The Senate version of the USA Freedom Act includes important reforms that will help bring greater accountability and transparency to NSA programs, and it’s important that the final bill include some key provisions, such as stronger search limitations for phone records,” she said.
Franken: House ‘basically gutted’ transparency measures
Franken said he was upset the House “basically gutted” provisions meant to increase surveillance transparency that he’s long pushed. According to the Open Technology Institute, the rewritten bill now stops communications companies from releasing information about government data requests for six months, struck a provision allowing them to report broadly on the number of surveillance court orders they receive, and prevents any new communications company from releasing any of that information for two years.
Last year, Franken wrote a bill looking to allow more reporting into the way the American surveillance program operates. He said he prefers going that route.
“Any [surveillance] reform effort has to provide the American people the basic information they need to reach an informed opinion about these programs,” he said in response to emailed questions. “At a minimum, this includes a requirement that the American government tell the American people roughly how many of them have had their information collected. My bipartisan bill does that. It will make sure that the government can be held accountable by its citizens.”
Franken didn’t say how he’d vote on the revised bill, but he’s been a stickler for improving transparency in the past. He voted against a bill reauthorizing key sections of the Patriot Act in 2011, citing, then and now, concerns about the program’s oversight.
Now, when it comes to the House’s version of the USA Freedom Act, “my transparency provisions are much stronger,” he said.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry