Wyden opposes House USA Freedom Act, says it’s “watered down”

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 22, 2014 

The USA Freedom Act may change the federal government’s bulk data collection system, but Sen. Ron Wyden, a leader critic of surveillance policy, sees the measure as “watered down.”

Wyden, D-Ore., issued a stinging statement Friday as the House passed the act, 303 to 121.

“I am gravely concerned that the changes that have been made to the House version of this bill have watered it down so far that it fails to protect Americans from suspicionless mass surveillance,” he said.

Wyden noted that the new text says the government has to use a “selection term” to collect Americans’ records, but the bill’s definition of such terms is too vague--and, Wyden said, “could be used to collect all of the phone records in a particular area code, or all of the credit card records from a particular state.”

He had this warning: “While this bill’s authors may not intend for it to be interpreted so broadly, the Executive Branch’s long track record of secretly interpreting surveillance laws in incredibly broad ways makes it clear that vague language is ineffective in restraining the Executive Branch. Given the Executive Branch’s record of consistently making inaccurate public statements about these laws in order to conceal ongoing dragnet surveillance of Americans, it would be naive to trust the Executive Branch to apply new surveillance laws with restraint. “

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is expected to seek changes.

“Fortunately, the Senate version of the USA Freedom Act still contains a strong prohibition against bulk collection, as well as a number of other important reforms,” Wyden said.

Among them: “It would close the ‘back-door searches’ loophole that allows intelligence agencies to deliberately read Americans’ emails without a warrant, and it would reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and install an advocate to argue for Americans’ constitutional rights when that court is considering major questions of law.”

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