Senate Takes Stab at NSA Reform. Can It Do Better Than the House?



In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill to rein-in National Security Agency surveillance that was so watered down that its own sponsor, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), commented, "I wish it more closely resembled the bill I originally introduced." Now the Senate considers its own version of the USA Freedom Act, with an attempt to remedy the flaws that drove many privacy advocates to condemn the approved legislation.

The Senate's bill comes courtesy of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), In a floor statement, he acknowledges that he "continue[s] to prefer the original version of the USA FREEDOM Act" that he crafted with Sensenbrenner, but that he has to work with what he has—which means something that can be reconciled with the weak-tea legislation passed by the House. He claims that the reworked bill "ensures that the government cannot rely on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the FISA pen register and trap and trace device statute, or the national security letter statutes to engage in the indiscriminate collection of Americans' private records."

The American Civil Liberties Union's Neema Singh Guliani notes that the proposal is "not perfect, and it only deals with one narrow surveillance authority," but says that it really is an improvement.

You might remember that one of our main criticisms of the House-passed version of the USA Freedom Act was that it contained a broad definition of "specific selection term" (SST), which, simply put, is the term that the government uses to describe the records it wants to collect. As it was approved in the House, that definition could be abused to permit the collection of everyone's records in an entire area code or zip code, even an entire network server.

The new version of the bill creates an exhaustive list of permissible SSTs for certain programs. If the new version works properly, the government will no longer be able to abuse the provision that led to the collection of the call detail records of virtually everyone in America.

For programs without an exhaustive list of SSTs, the bill contains language indicating that the SSTs must be narrowly limited, and it explicitly prohibits broad SSTs based on, for example, an entire city or telephone service provider.

That's something, but…Note that the USA Freedom Act only addresses surveillance under Section 215 of the Patriot Act—snooping carried out under any other authority isn't touched.

Baby steps.

NEXT: 'An Even Bigger Bite': Obama Announces New Sanctions on Russia

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  1. Guliani notes that the proposal is “not perfect”

    No shit.

    1. E.g., If the Director of National
      Intelligence continues to conclude that the good faith estimates described in this paragraph cannot be determined accurately, the Director shall
      annually submit a certification in accordance with this paragraph
      immediately be replaced by someone who can do the job

  2. I have no faith whatsoever that even a substantial minority in Congress actually oppose the NSA in any way or that the NSA feels the slightest bit constrained by the law. Does nobody remember the Total Information Awareness program and how that got shut down because of the reaction against the government mass dragnetting all our information? We defunded all this stuff once before and it didn’t go away, is adding some finger wagging going to scare it off now?

  3. Baby steps.

    Unfortunately, it’s gigantic leaps when taking freedoms away, micro-baby steps when trying to get them back. The math don’t work out.

  4. This is such a clear violation of the IVthe Amendment that no legislation is needed, just a Supreme Court with the ability to read that fairly simple statement.

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