House committee clears measure prohibiting unconstitutional NSA spying


In a unanimous vote on Wednesday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee passed the USA FREEDOM Act, a bipartisan measure that would prohibit the National Security Agency’s collection of innocent Americans’ phone records.

“Today’s strong, bipartisan vote by the House Judiciary Committee takes us one step closer to ending bulk collection once and for all and safeguards Americans’ civil liberties as our intelligence community keeps us safe from foreign enemies who wish us harm,” Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in a statement.

The USA FREEDOM Act prohibits the bulk data collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and closes pen-and-trap and National Security Letter loopholes through which the NSA could obtain metadata.

The measure requires the federal government to seek FISA court approval for records on a case-by-case basis and increases congressional oversight of the programs. It also establishes a panel to consider privacy concerns and allows tech firms to disclose court request for consumers’ information.

“As the Committee of primary jurisdiction,” said Goodlatte, “we urge the House and Senate to move expeditiously on this legislation so that we can begin to restore confidence in the way intelligence is gathered and protect the privacy rights of all Americans.”

Privacy advocates are concerned that the USA FREEDOM Act was watered down too much in the deal stuck to bring it up for a vote in committee. The sense, however, is that the measure is better than the pro-NSA bill that is currently in the House Intelligence Committee.

Still, some are urging the House to strengthen the USA FREEDOM Act. Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a “good start toward reforming an out-of-control surveillance state,” but laid out some of the potential problems, including the “backdoor loophole” in Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

“Section 702 authorities need to be sharply limited to ensure that collection is only possible for communications to and from a designated target, not merely those who mention a target in a communication,” Opsahl explained. “The scope of Section 702 should be limited by requiring a description of who, what, and where the NSA is targeting.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy echoed concerns that the measure had been weakened compared to its original form, but called the House committee vote “an historic step” and urged the House to “uphold the rights of all Americans and support the USA FREEDOM Act.”

Leahy, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the USA FREEDOM Act, also announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider the measure this summer.

The USA FREEDOM Act was introduced in October by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), whose authorship is extraordinary given that he wrote the USA PATRIOT Act. The measure has broad, bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. It’s unclear if House leaders will allow it to come to the floor for a vote.

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