Senate bill would overhaul NSA surveillance

National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. June 6, 2013 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. June 6, 2013 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) AP

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bill Tuesday to halt the federal government’s bulk collection of American’s telephone and Internet information.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that, if enacted, the bill “would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago.”

Leahy’s USA Freedom Act 2014 would halt bulk data collection authorized by Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, a law enacted during George W. Bush’s presidency after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, by requiring the government to narrowly limit the scope of its search.

Broad searches _ either through a particular service provider or by a broad geographic region or zip code _ would be stopped, Leahy said in an outline of the bill. The government wouldn’t be able to collect all information relating to a particular service provider or broad geographic region.

The measure requires the government to report on the number of individuals whose information has been collected, provide a count of how many of those individuals are American, and give the number of searches run on Americans in certain databases.

“This is a debate about Americans’ fundamental relationship with their government, about whether our government would have the power to create massive databases of information about its citizens or whether we are in control of our own government, not the other way around,” Leahy said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “I believe we have to impose stronger limits on government surveillance powers.”

But some of Leahy’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate don’t think his bill is strong enough. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado said in a joint statement that the bill doesn’t do enough to “end the backdoor and warrantless searches” under certain sections of the law.

“Congress needs to close this loophole, and we look forward to working with Chairman Leahy and our colleagues to address this issue when the bill comes before the full Senate,” Wyden and Udall said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested to The Hill newspaper earlier this week that the differences between Leahy’s bill and one passed by the House of Representatives in May might make it difficult to get an intelligence overhaul measure through both chambers.

Leahy’s proposed overhaul of the nation’s surveillance system follows revelations of the National Security Agency’s activities unveiled through leaks last year by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The White House and Congress called for changes in the system. But some lawmakers and privacy groups said the House bill was too weak and still allowed agents to conduct broad record searches. Leahy’s bill was lauded Tuesday by several civil liberties organizations.

“While this bill is not perfect, it is the beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001,” Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, said in a statement. “The Senate bill is an improvement over the version passed by the House, but problems remain. It is important that the public understand there is much more work to be done to narrow the government’s overbroad surveillance authorities to bring them in line with our Constitution and values.”

Tech companies also lined up in support of Leahy’s measure. The Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes tech giants Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, said the “bill will help restore trust in the Internet by ending the government’s bulk Internet metadata collection and increasing transparency around U.S. surveillance practices.”