Freedom Act Passes House After Compromises

Privacy advocates abandon support for surveillance reform bill while White House supports it.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 25, 2007.

An NSA reform bill introduced by Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is expected pass the House this week.

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Update: The House passed this bill Thursday, May 22, 2014, by a vote of 302-121. Privacy advocates including the Center for Democracy & Technology repeated concerns that the broad language in the bill could allow dragnet phone records surveillance to continue. The bill faces an uncertain future as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has also expressed concerns that too many privacy protections for Americans were removed from the House bill.

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The House of Representatives will likely approve the USA Freedom Act Thursday. But the bill intended to end bulk data collection by the National Security Agency has lost support from privacy advocates, concerned that amendments to the bill would leave Americans vulnerable to broad surveillance if it passed.

[READ: Obama: Surveillance Reform 'By the Time I Leave This Office']

Support for some kind of NSA surveillance reform in Congress has grown since October, when the bill was introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. This shift in public opinion led to unanimous approval of the bill in key House committees earlier this month. Obama administration officials were involved in negotiations with the House Rules Committee Tuesday, which drafted a final version of the bill for a floor vote. The White House issued a statement Wednesday supporting it.

“The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,” the statement said.

President Barack Obama supported the NSA's phone surveillance for months before backtracking in March. He began to call for an end to the bulk data collection as public opinion turned against the government following news reports using documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Freedom Act aims to increase privacy by prohibiting bulk collection of Americans phone records through specific provisions of the Patriot Act, but the negotiation process removed oversight and privacy protections from the bill. Some lawmakers and privacy advocates say this could leave the door open for the government to monitor people who have nothing to do with a terrorist or criminal investigation. The amended version of the bill is available online.

During an FBI oversight hearing on Wednesday Leahy alluded that more negotiation would be needed to reconcile House and Senate versions of the Freedom Act. Leahy’s office has no timetable yet for markup of the bill in the Senate.

“I remain concerned that some important reforms were removed,” Leahy said. “I hope that you will work with me as the Senate takes up this important issue.”

[ALSO: NSA-Reforming USA Freedom Act Passes House Committee]

Sensenbrenner was the author of the Patriot Act that enabled vast NSA surveillance but wrote the Freedom Act with provisions to boost government accountability such as creating a privacy advocate to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, who could argue civil liberties concerns and appeal court decisions. Language in the bill has since been changed that may allow a more open interpretation of how broad NSA surveillance can be.

“We started with the strongest bill possible, but had to negotiate to ensure passage” says Ben Miller, spokesman for Sensenbrenner. “We had to give up some of what we wanted, but the bill will end bulk collection and increase transparency, so we’ll be able to identify any attempts to evade the new restrictions.”

Privacy and Internet freedom advocates including The Center for Democracy & Technology and Access withdrew their support for the House version of the bill on Tuesday, fearing the vague language would give the government loopholes to continue broad surveillance.

“As amended, the bill may not prevent collection of data on a very large scale in a manner that infringes upon the privacy of Americans with no connection to a crime or terrorism,” said a blog post by Harley Geiger, senior counsel of the CDT. “This is quite disappointing given the consensus by the public, Congress, the president, and two independent review groups that ending bulk collection is necessary.”


Updated on May 21, 2014: This story has been changed to include a more extensive quote from Sensenbrenner spokesman Ben Miller.

Updated on May 22, 2014: This story has been updated to indicate the legislation did pass the House on May 22, 2014.