The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation on April 30 that would bring about a comprehensive overhaul of surveillance programs authorized under the USA PATRIOT Act. The bipartisan USA Freedom Act (H.R. 2048), which was reported to the full House by a vote of 25-2, would continue to permit the government to compel the production of business records that are relevant to a terrorism investigation, but would prohibit the bulk collection of data.
“The USA Freedom Act reforms our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs to ensure they operate in a manner that reflects core American values,” said Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), John Conyers (D-MI), and Jerold Nadler (D-NY) in a joint statement following the committee’s action. “This bill ends bulk collection once and for all, enhances civil liberties protections, increases transparency for both American businesses and the government, and provides national security officials targeted tools to keep America safe from foreign enemies.”
Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act permits the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies to compel the bulk production of business records, such as phone metadata, subject to an order obtained from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The provision is set to expire on June 1 unless it is reauthorized by Congress.
The USA Freedom Act extends Section 215 until the end of 2019. However, it prohibits the large-scale, indiscriminate collection of records to protect civil liberties while giving the government new national security tools, including a new call detail records program that is closely overseen by the FISA court, and permitting the government to track foreign terrorists when they enter the United States.
The House action was seen as welcome news to by major U.S. technology companies. “Today's strong bipartisan vote in the House Judiciary Committee starts Congress along the path of strengthening users' trust in the Internet while protecting national security,” wrote the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, a group that includes Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, in an online statement. “Reform Government Surveillance urges the House and Senate to move expeditiously in May to enact the USA Freedom Act so as to implement the balanced approach supported in the committee and reflected in pending legislation in Senate.”
The full House is expected to take up the legislation in early May. However, it is likely to encounter significant hurdles in the Senate, where similar legislation failed in 2014. Legislation (S. 1035) to provide a clean renewal of Section 215 without modifications was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on April 21. McConnell told reporters on May 5 that he plans to bring the legislation to the Senate floor under an open amendment process.
Although he stopped short of issuing a veto threat against a clean extension of Section 215, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at a May 5 press briefing that President Obama has been clear about his support for legislation to end the NSA's bulk telephony metadata program as it exists and create an alternative mechanism.