By Alexei Alexis
May 8 — A bill (H.R. 3361) to overhaul National Security Agency surveillance activities—which was approved by the House Judiciary Committee May 7—has a much easier path to the House floor after it was approved May 8 by the House Intelligence Committee.
The bill would prohibit the NSA from relying on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act to seek orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to compel U.S. businesses to turn over customer records in bulk amounts.
The Intelligence Committee approved the bill by voice vote, the panel announced after a closed markup session.
The Judiciary Committee unanimously approved H.R. 3361 May 7.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters after his panel's May 7 markup that the outlook for the bill is “very, very good,” given the overwhelming support that it received from the committee.
H.R. 3361, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection, and Online Monitoring (USA FREEDOM) Act, was introduced in October 2013 by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. At the same time, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced companion legislation in the Senate (S. 1599).
The bills were filed in the wake of revelations about NSA surveillance activities by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
Sensenbrenner said in a May 8 statement that the Intelligence Committee vote “presents a clear path forward for the House and Senate.”
Leahy has said that he expects his panel to take up S. 1599 this summer.
Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the chairman and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, decided not to move forward with a competing measure (H.R. 4291) they had introduced in March, which was seen by privacy advocates as a weaker proposal.
“The fact that USA Freedom had such a large number of bipartisan cosponsors, sizeable public support and especially a unanimous vote from the Judiciary Committee, which is often divided on other matters, sends a strong message that this should be the vehicle for reform,” Harley Geiger, surveillance and security deputy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Bloomberg BNA May 8.
Both bills sought to establish a new process for the government to obtain phone records under Section 215. But H.R. 4291 would allow judicial review of surveillance activities after the fact, while the Sensenbrenner bill would require prior court approval, according to Geiger.
Rogers and Ruppersberger issued a joint statement after the Intelligence Committee markup saying that they look forward to working with the Judiciary Committee, House and Senate leadership and the White House to address outstanding operational concerns related to the USA FREEDOM Act and to get the bill enacted into law this year.
The bill was approved as adopted by the Judiciary Committee, an Intelligence Committee spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA. She said that Rogers and Ruppersberger will work to ensure that there are no “unintended operational impacts” in any final bill.
During the House Judiciary markup, the panel adopted amendments, which were included in the Intelligence Committee's subsequent review.
The Judiciary Committee adopted a substitute amendment with provisions to establish a more targeted process for the collection of call data, along the lines of a proposal outlined in March by President Barack Obama.
The substitute language, which was offered by Sensenbrenner, was circulated after negotiations involving him and other important committee members on both sides of the aisle, including Goodlatte and ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.).
The Judiciary Committee also adopted an amendment from Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) to authorize U.S. communications providers to publicly report statistics on surveillance orders imposed on them by the government.
Similar language was included in the original bill but was excluded from the substitute amendment.
Several leading U.S. Internet companies, including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo! Inc., Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. have been challenging the government for the right to tell their customers more about government requests for customer data and how the companies respond to those requests.
In January, several companies agreed to drop their legal challenges after the Department of Justice said the federal government will allow Internet companies to make public certain limited aggregate information on national security orders to provide customer data.
The DelBene amendment would codify the terms of a lawsuit settlement reached earlier this year between the Department of Justice and Internet companies, while making additional modifications to allow for greater transparency, according to a statement issued by the committee after the markup.
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H.R. 3361, as introduced, is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr3361ih/pdf/BILLS-113hr3361ih.pdf.
Amendments to H.R. 3361 considered by the Judiciary Committee are available at http://judiciary.house.gov/index.cfm/2014/5/markup-of-h-r-3361-the-usa-freedom-act.
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