WASHINGTON – The House is poised to take the first significant step to change the National Security Agency's bulk collection of American phone records, a compromise bill that is displeasing many civil liberties activists.
The USA Freedom Act would codify a proposal made in January by President Barack Obama, who said he wanted to end the NSA's practice of collecting the "to and from" records of nearly every American landline telephone call under a program that searched the data for connections to terrorist plots abroad.
The bill, scheduled for a House vote Thursday, instructs the phone companies to hold the records for 18 months and let the NSA search them in terrorism investigations in response to a judicial order. The program was revealed last year by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.
"The bill's significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system," the White House said in a statement Wednesday endorsing the legislation.
Privacy and civil liberties activists denounced the measure, saying it had been "gutted" to win agreement from lawmakers, particularly on the Intelligence Committee, who supported the NSA phone records program.
"This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans' private information," Nuala O'Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.
"The bill now offers only mild reform and goes against the overwhelming support for definitively ending bulk collection," she added.
House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who represents a liberal district outside of Los Angeles, said the bill is perhaps the most significant action Congress will take in response to the Snowden leaks. The former NSA contractor handed journalists documents that revealed a host of once-secret NSA surveillance programs, including some that sweep in the personal information of Americans even as they target foreigners.
Outrage over the programs that Snowden publicized brought together conservatives and liberals who favor civil liberties, while the administration and congressional leadership resisted changing what they considered a useful counterterror tool.
"I think there's been remarkable convergence on the issue," Schiff said. "It wasn't long ago that it was a real struggle with the idea of ending bulk collection. I think it's a very good bill."
Schiff said he wished the bill had provided for an independent public advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret judicial body that sets the legal parameters for NSA surveillance that touches on Americans. Such an advocate could challenge the government's legal positions on what surveillance is permissible, he said. As it stands, the FISA court only hear from the government. No one represents the American public, whose data is being collected, or the terror suspect in court.
Instead, the law includes "a fairly weak" provision for friend of the court briefs, which are already allowed under existing law.
"I don't think it's the end of the reform process," Schiff said.
In another change, the original bill required annual public reports by the government estimating, to the nearest 100, how many Americans were subject to various categories of secret intelligence surveillance, according to OpentheGovernment, a coalition promoting government transparency.
Those requirements were dropped from the bill, the group said.