Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy , D-Vt., introduced the USA Freedom Act on Tuesday with the help of some co-sponsors previously opposed to the bill's goal of ending the bulk data collection by the National Security Agency.
The Freedom Act would end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' communications records by amending Section 215 of the Patriot Act, making numerous amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and creating a privacy advocate to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, who could argue civil liberties concerns and appeal court decisions. The full text of the bill is available online.
Sensenbrenner was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, and was one of the original authors of the Patriot Act. In a statement on Monday introducing the Freedom Act, Sensenbrenner said the surveillance powers granted to intelligence agencies in the Patriot Act have kept Americans safe "but somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost."
"It's now time for the judiciary committees to again come together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected," Sensenbrenner said. "Washington must regain Americans' trust in their government."
Since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began disclosing government phone and email surveillance practices in June, members of congress have introduced a stack of proposals calling for increased transparency and oversight of the agency. In a statement on Monday Leahy said "modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough."
"The government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act are far broader than the American people previously understood," Leahy said. "It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community,"
The highly anticipated bill to end the NSA's dragnet collection of phone records, and increase oversight, transparency, and accountability on domestic surveillance, is poised to set off another showdown in Congress between privacy rights and the national security needs of data surveillance. The House defeated by 12 votes a proposed amendment to the defense appropriations bill in July that would have restricted the NSA's collection of phone records and metadata, known as the Amash amendment because it was introduced by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.
The co-sponsors of the House version of the Freedom Act include eight members who voted against that Amash amendment, and two of the 12 members who did not vote on that amendment, which could increase the chances of a vote in the House to end bulk data collection.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., voted against the Amash amendment but on Monday he commended the introduction of the Freedom Act.
"With each revelation of the scope of NSA's intelligence gathering programs, it's increasingly clear that we need to take legislative action with regard to these programs to ensure that they adequately protect Americans' civil liberties and operate in a prudent manner," Goodlatte said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has defended the need for NSA data collection to fight organized crime and terrrorism, and voted against the Amash amendment in Juiy. Rogers is also drafting his own legislation to reform the NSA, which would likely emphasize transparency on the FISA court rather than a push to end data surveillance.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has also defended the need for the NSA to maintain its data surveillance powers, and is expected to introduce a bill that would increase transparency but would maintain the agency's data collection powers. However, Feinstein called for increased scrutiny of government surveillance on Monday in the wake of reports that the NSA monitored U.S. allies including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community," Feinstein said in a statement.
To protect Americans from broad surveillance the new bill proposes FISA amendments including changes to section 702 of the act to restrict intelligence gathering to data directly relevant to terrorism investigations. The bill would also require the government to disclose FISC decisions that contain a significant construction or interpretation of the law. It would also increase the ability of Internet and telecom companies to disclose information about government requests.
Advocacy groups which support the USA Freedom Act include the American Civil Liberties Union. The Freedom Act is "far superior" in addressing civil liberties compared with the bill that Feinstein is expected to introduce, according to a statement from Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU.
"Although the USA Freedom Act does not fix every problem with the government's surveillance authorities and programs, it is an important first step and it deserves broad support," Richardson said.