New Legislation Could Stop Some of NSA's Creepy Big Brother Behaviors

Senators argue the NSA shouldn't be allowed to stockpile everyone's telephone records without authorization to investigate.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. (Photo: Tom Williams/'CQ Roll Call')

Jul 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

After leading negotiations with the White House and privacy watchdogs, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a surveillance bill Tuesday aiming to put the kibosh on the National Security Agency’s bulk phone records collection program. It’s the latest effort to curb the government’s ability to gather information on its citizens in the wake of former federal contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations a year ago about the NSA's broad-reaching domestic surveillance program.

“We have a responsibility to protect the privacy of American people,” Leahy said on the Senate floor Tuesday, imploring his colleagues to take action. “That’s why we have worked hard to enact meaningful reforms.”

The new bill, USA Freedom Act of 2014, is an updated version of the one Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced last fall. It builds on the surveillance legislation passed by the House last spring, which many critics panned as watered down and inconsequential. The Leahy measure is more prescriptive in how it curtails the government’s ability to spy on American citizens.

Specifically, it would stop the NSA’s automated collection of Americans’ phone records. Instead, the records would remain with the phone companies unless the government made requests for specific ones having a connection to a terrorist suspect.

Among other reporting requirements, transparency provisions in Leahy's bill would mandate that the government report the number of individuals whose information is collected and how many of them were likely to be American.

Under Leahy's bill, private companies would also have more flexibility in disclosing the number of national security letters and orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, known as the FISA Court, they receive. The FISA Court authorizes government requests to use electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes.

How the FISA Court operates, which is largely in secret, has been a sticking point for privacy advocates.

To address some of those concerns, the Leahy bill calls for the FISA Court to appoint a “panel of special advocates who are to advance legal positions in support of individual privacy and civil liberties.”

Top critics of government intelligence gathering say that it’s a step in the right direction.

“This legislation is a major improvement over the version that passed the House in June,” said Nuala O’Connor, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “We encourage the Senate to pass this bill as is, and the House to quickly follow suit without weakening the bill.”

The American Civil Liberties Union backs the proposal.

“While this bill is not perfect, it is the beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001,” said Laura W. Murphy, a top legislative aide at the ACLU’s Washington office.

Introduced only days before Congress goes on August recess, it has no chance of moving before the fall. But it does have some Republican support. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, spoke after Leahy, praising the measure as an important one that will help “protect us” from the “overreach of government.”

While Leahy enjoys the support of key groups on this bill, experts say a lot more reform is needed.

“It is important that the public understand that there is much more work to be done to narrow the government’s overbroad surveillance authorities to bring them in line with our Constitution and values,” Murphy said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have miles left to go.”