Proposal to Let Feds Snoop on Emails Dropped

Sen. Patrick Leahy backs off on proposal to allow warrantless email access after his biggest contributors object.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, center, admires a computer connected to wireless Internet in Montpelier, Vt., June 18, 2004.
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Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont has killed a controversial portion of a bill he proposed that would have allowed more than 20 government agencies to access Americans' emails without a warrant, CNET reports.

Leahy originally proposed the bill to increase email and Internet privacy. But he received pushback from law enforcement interests, so he amended it to allow warrantless access to email by a bevy of government agencies, from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Mine Enforcement Safety and Health Review Commission. That revised version sparked outrage among civil liberties proponents and a coalition of technology companies. On Tuesday Leahy abandoned the offending amendments altogether.

Leahy's office said Tuesday on Twitter the proposed changes were only "ideas," and would not withstand the mark-up phase of the bill process in the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

His office also implied the bill needed more privacy protections on Twitter.

Leahy's turnaround came after the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the amendment and conservative group FreedomWorks launched a petition campaign headlined "Tell Congress: Stay Out of My Email!" It also would have displeased some of Leahy's biggest backers: technology companies.

A trade group for the industry called The Center for Democracy and Technology, whose members include Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon, told CNET it would oppose Leahy's proposed rewrite.

The tech industry is Leahy's third-largest source of campaign funds, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The industry has given the senator more than $300,000 since last year, and companies such as Technet, Microsoft, Google, and Oracle are among his largest sources of contributions, according to CRP.

The proposed bill, without the warrantless email surveillance provisions, is scheduled to be voted on in committee on Nov. 29.. The previous iteration required authorities to establish probable cause and obtain a search warrant before gaining access to email and other electronic communications.

The bill would be the first significant action on computer surveillance since the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was written in 1986 (and is alluded to in Leahy's tweet). That law allows the government warrantless access to electronic communications if they are more than six months old.

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Seth Cline is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at scline@usnews.com.