WASHINGTON – In an overwhelming vote, the House moved the U.S. closer to ending the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records Thursday, the most significant demonstration to date of leaker Edward Snowden’s impact on the debate over privacy versus security.
But the final version of the legislation, watered down in the words of one supporter, also showed the limits of that effect.
The bill was severely weakened to mollify U.S. intelligence agencies, which insisted that the surveillance programs that shocked many Americans are a critical bulwark against terror plots.
The bill was approved 303 to 121, which means that most House members can now say they voted to end what many critics consider the most troubling practice Snowden disclosed – the collection and storage of U.S. calling data by the secretive intelligence agency.
But almost no other major provision designed to restrict NSA surveillance – including limits on the secret court that grants warrants to search the data – survived the negotiations to get the bill to the House floor.
And even the prohibition on bulk collection of Americans’ communications records has been called into question by some activists who say a last-minute change in wording diminished what was sold as a ban.
People will say, We did something, and isn’t something enough,’ said Steven Aftergood, who tracks intelligence issues for the Federation of American Scientists. But this bill doesn’t fundamentally resolve the uncertainties that generated the whole controversy.
Though some privacy activists continued to back the bill, others withdrew support, as did technology companies such as Google and Facebook.
Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican Intelligence Committee chairman, said, I believe this is a workable compromise that protects the core function of a counterterrorism program we know has saved lives around the world.
The measure now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday that we must do something.
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 and storing 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 phone records program was revealed though the leaks last year by Snowden, who used his job as a computer network administrator to remove tens of thousands of secret documents from an NSA facility in Hawaii. Snowden fled first to China, then to Russia where he is avoiding an extradition order to face criminal charges for revealing classified information.
The phone companies create and store those billing records, and the legislation still would give the NSA authority to request batches of data from the companies to search in terrorism investigations in response to a judicial order. Law enforcement agents routinely obtain such records in criminal investigations.
The USA Freedom Act started its life as the idea of those who wanted to clamp down on NSA surveillance, but it was watered down, as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., acknowledged, shedding a series of provisions favored by civil liberties activists. Some activists continued to back the bill, including the ACLU, whose Washington legislative director, Laura Murphy, called it an imperfect but unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control NSA.
Other provisions that were dropped from the bill included requirements to estimate the number of Americans whose records were captured under the program and the creation of a public advocate with the power to challenge the government’s legal arguments before the secret surveillance court.
NSA officials were pleased with the bill for another reason: The new arrangement will give them access to mobile calling records they did not have under the old program, officials say.