Congress moved to restrict mass surveillance under the Patriot Act Tuesday afternoon, introducing to the House and Senate the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would prohibit the National Security Agency from collecting the phone records of American citizens in bulk, without a warrant.
The legal authority behind the NSA's controversial metadata collection program has been interpreted by government officials to come from Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a provision set to expire on June 1. By reauthorizing Section 215 with restrictions, Congress believes the USA Freedom Act will curb the government's most invasive spying powers, while ensuring that surveillance tools be used to thwart terror plots.
"As several intelligence-gathering programs are set to expire in a month, it is imperative that we reform these programs to protect Americans' privacy while at the same time protecting our national security," Representatives Bob Goodlatte, John Conyers, and Jerrold Nadler said in a joint statement.
The representatives went on to say the USA Freedom Act "enhances civil liberties protections, increases transparency for both American businesses and the government, ends the bulk collection of data, and provides national security officials targeted tools to keep America safe from foreign enemies."
Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization that has been critical of the NSA's bulk collection of communication records, describes the legislation as "the most significant national security surveillance reform bill in the past two decades, with any chance of passing."
Geiger told BuzzFeed News that while the bill is not as comprehensive as the CDT would have liked, it still does much to rein in the NSA's surveillance powers. Not only does the USA Freedom Act eliminate the agency's ability to conduct dragnet surveillance programs, it institutes new requirements for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a panel that oversees requests for surveillance warrants. Specifically, the legislation would require FISA to provide summaries of significant legal decisions on surveillance to the public. The proposed legislation would address "the problem of secret law in this country," he said. "Secret law is anathema to a healthy democracy."
The American Civil Liberties Union isn't quite so enthusiastic about the USA Freedom Act. While the group doesn't oppose the bill, it does take a critical view of it. Among the ACLU's criticisms of the legislation: its overly broad data retention, a lack of transparency, and some unnecessary criminal penalties. Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the ACLU, told BuzzFeed News that the group also worries that a proposed advocate to the FISA court isn't explicitly charged with ensuring proper privacy and civil liberties protections.
The USA Freedom Act is headed to the House Judiciary Committee for markup on Thursday. And the Committee will have to work fast. While provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire on June 1, the practical deadline is May 21. That's the last day Congress is scheduled to be in session before the Memorial Day recess. Greater political resistance is expected in the Senate, where a prior iteration of the USA Freedom Act stalled at the end of last year, and where some, like Senator Mitch McConnell, wish to continue bulk data collection without any restrictions.
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.