Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has introduced legislation that would bust wide open the debate over government data collection.
In light of the privacy scandal that has angered many, Leahy wants to make serious revisions to sections within the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act, the controversial legislation that allowed the U.S. government to sweep up electronic communications of U.S. citizens.
Leahy's legislation, dubbed the FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act, would reduce the dragnet electronic data seizures occurring now under the laws and require the federal government to more precisely prove that an American citizen is communicating with a suspected terrorist organization before their records are collected.
The bill would also force the government to provide more targeted requests before phone companies turn over customer phone records. And instead of sunsetting in 2017, the FISA Amendments Act would expire in 2015, launching Congress into a debate on it two years earlier than planned during the same time it will deliberate the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.
"These are all common sense, practical improvements that will ensure that the broad and powerful surveillance tools being used by the government are subject to appropriate limitations, transparency, and oversight," Leahy said in a released statement. "The American people deserve to know how laws like the USA PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act are being used to conduct electronic surveillance, particularly when it involves the collection of data on innocent Americans. "
The new bill comes as U.S. government officials engage in an international manhunt for Edward Snowden, the self-acknowledged leaker and now-former government contractor who sounded the alarm on the government spying programs. As a result, he faces charges he violated the Espionage Act.
Leahy's legislation has attracted support from across the aisle and all parts of the political spectrum, including co-sponsors Sens. Sens. Mike Lee R-Utah and Richard Blumenthal D-Conn., among several others.
Other senators, however, including Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have defended NSA's broad collection strategy.
Last week, the NSA said the strategy helped them stop 50 plotted terrorism attacks.
Privacy advocates, however, say Leahy's bill is a significant move in the right direction.
"It is a good first step," says Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Richardson says the ACLU has long supported Leahy's work on the issue. Leahy has introduced similar bills before, but they have never gained the traction needed to pass. Snowden's leak has changed all that.
"I think it is definitely a game changer," Richardson says. "While we warned about the possibility of these things happening, a lot of people were skeptical. We are seeing people speak up now."