Exclusive: Bipartisan bill pulls together existing efforts to dramatically reform the NSA in the wake of Snowden disclosures
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Thursday 10 October 2013
The conservative Republican who co-authored America’s Patriot Act is preparing to unveil bipartisan legislation that would dramatically curtail the domestic surveillance powers it gives to intelligence agencies.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who worked with president George W Bush to give more power to US intelligence agencies after the September 11 terrorist attacks, said the intelligence community had misused those powers by collecting telephone records on all Americans, and claimed it was time “to put their metadata program out of business”.
His imminent bill in the House of Representatives is expected to be matched by a similar proposal from Senate judiciary committee chair Patrick Leahy, a Democrat. It pulls together existing congressional efforts to reform the National Security Agency in the wake of disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Sensenbrenner has called his bill the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-Collection, and Online Monitoring Act – or USA Freedom Act, and a draft seen by the Guardian has four broad aims.
It seeks to limit the collection of phone records to known terrorist suspects; to end “secret laws” by making courts disclose surveillance policies; to create a special court advocate to represent privacy interests; and to allow companies to disclose how many requests for users’ information they receive from the USA. The bill also tightens up language governing overseas surveillance to remove a loophole which it has been abused to target internet and email activities of Americans.
Many lawmakers have agreed that some new legislation is required in the wake of the collapse in public trust that followed Snowden’s disclosures, which revealed how the NSA was collecting bulk records of all US phone calls in order to sift out potential terrorist targets.
In July, a temporary measure to defund the NSA bulk collection programme was narrowly defeated in a 217 to 205 vote in the House, but Sensenbrenner said the appetite for greater privacy protections had only grown since.
“Opinions have hardened with the revelations over the summer, particularly the inspector general’s report that there were thousands of violations of regulations, and the disclosure that NSA employees were spying on their spouses or significant others, which was very chilling,” he told the Guardian in an interview.
Instead, the main opposition to Sensenbrenner and Leahy’s twin-pronged effort is likely to come from the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, who is supportive of the NSA but who has proposed separate legislation focusing on greater transparency and checks rather than an outright ban on bulk collection.
Sensenbrenner and other reformers have been scathing of this rival legislative approach, calling it a “fig leaf” and questioning the independence of the intelligence committee. “I do not want to see Congress pass a fig leaf because that would allow the NSA to say ‘Well, we’ve cleaned up our act’ until the next scandal breaks,” he said.