Vote on USA Freedom Act Unlikely This Spring

Senators expected to wait for Obama’s NSA reform efforts before voting on surveillance bill.

Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks at a Georgetown University Law Center discussion Sept. 24, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Patrick Leahy's bill aims to end bulk data collection by the National Security Agency.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is drumming up support for a bill to end the government’s bulk collection of Americans' communications records, but the measure likely won't be voted upon before the Obama administration rolls out more efforts to reform the National Security Agency.

The USA Freedom Act, introduced in October by Leahy, D-Vt., and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., would amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the NSA program that tracks what numbers Americans call and for how long they speak. During a speech on Jan. 17, President Barack Obama announced he had tasked Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence leaders with devising a plan to shift the NSA phone records collection program out of government hands before March 28.

 “I don’t expect we would have a vote before then,” Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for Leahy’s Judiciary Committee office, says of Obama’s deadline.

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Leahy also has not discussed a timetable for the bill with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee's top Republican, says Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Grassley’s Judiciary Committee office.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act sunsets in June 2015 unless Congress reauthorizes it, and waiting gives Leahy time to gather support for his bill, Brady says. During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 4, Sensenbrenner told Deputy Attorney General James Cole that the Obama administration should work with Congress to amend the surveillance powers of the NSA so the agency better observes civil liberties, or Congress might not reauthorize the provision in 2015.

"Unless Section 215 gets fixed, you, Mr. Cole, and the intelligence community will get absolutely nothing, because I am confident there are not the votes in this Congress to reauthorize it," Sensenbrenner said. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday spoke about Section 215 with the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, highlighting divisions on whether to abolish the data collection program.

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The five-member, bipartisan panel that advises the president on privacy and civil liberties voted 3-2 in a January report that the NSA’s metadata collection program was unlawful, and determined it had not been integral in preventing terrorist attacks.

Grassley seemed skeptical about the board’s judgment against the surveillance program in his opening statement.

The board’s conclusion on this point is striking, given that it is inconsistent with the opinions of so many other authorities that have evaluated the lawfulness of the Section 215 program,” Grassley said.

Board member Rachel Brand defended the NSA bulk collection program as legal, and said the panel’s report did not observe  the difference between criminal and national security investigations because uncovering terrorist networks requires broader phone data gathering. 

"I think the board's report both overstates the privacy implications and understates the benefits," said Brand, a former Department of Justice official who served during the Bush administration.