House Overwhelmingly Passes NSA Reform Bill

Washington, DC – Today, the House of Representatives passed the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that would end the NSA’s indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone records, by a vote of 338 to 88. The vote comes on the heels of a decision by a federal appeals court last week holding that the bulk collection program violates Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Following the court’s ruling, the Obama administration issued a statement in support of the USA Freedom Act, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared his intent to pass legislation allowing the bulk collection program to continue.

“This vote sends a clear signal to the Senate that NSA reform is inevitable,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Senator McConnell wants to put his head in the sand and go forward with the NSA’s mass surveillance of Americans. That goes against the will of the people, the Congress, the administration, and the courts. In light of the clear mandate for reform, the Senate should not only take up the USA Freedom Act, it should strengthen it by limiting how long the NSA can keep records and by filling the many loopholes in the bill’s transparency provisions.”

“Last week a federal appeals court stood up to the NSA, ruling that its massive database of Americans phone records was illegal,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s time for Congress to do its part and ensure that theNSA understands that it doesn’t have the authority to indiscriminately collect highly personal information about millions of innocent Americans.”

The USA Freedom Act aims to prohibit bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, along with other records held by third parties, by requiring the government to use “specific selection terms” when applying to the FISA Court for collection orders. It also would require the Director of National Intelligence to publicly release redacted versions or summaries of significant FISA Court opinions, as well as limited statistics on the government’s use of surveillance authorities. And it would create a panel of attorneys who could be called upon by the FISA Court to provide another perspective in court proceedings.

The bill does not meaningfully limit what NSA can do with collected records or how long it can hold them, however, and its requirements for statistical reporting were significantly watered down compared to the version of the bill introduced by Senator Leahy last year. It leaves the decision as to whether to include an advocate for the public interest in the hands of the FISA Court, which has shown reluctance to use a similar mechanism in the past. Thebill also includes a provision that would increase the maximum sentence for “material support for terrorism” from 15 to 20 years. This is problematic because the law has been construed to criminalize pure speech, including counseling in non-violent conflict resolution, and even the provision of humanitarian aid to civilian populations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.