Judiciary Committee passes compromise bill that would end NSA collection of …

30 Apr 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Expansive surveillance reform takes backseat to House politics.

House leaders have reached a bipartisan compromise on a bill that would end the National Security Agency’s controversial collection of American phone records, but the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate. The NSA’s phone-snooping program is likely on its last legs after a key House committee voted overwhelmingly Thursday to end the Patriot Act’s bulk-collection powers that the government was relying on to keep the phone program up and running.

As lawmakers stare down the barrel of a deadline to renew or reform the Patriot Act, they have all but assured that more expansive reforms to U.S. intelligence powers won’t be included. The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the latest version of a bill known as the USA Freedom Act by a bipartisan vote of 25 to 2. Much of the scrutiny is on Section 215 of the Act, which allows the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to access and store the phone records of millions of Americans under the guise of national security.

Many of the bill’s backers privately concede it is unlikely that Congress will adopt stringent limitations to the NSA’s spying apparatus if an agreement is not worked out before that fast-approaching deadline. But House leadership has indicated that the Freedom Act has its support, and that it may earn a floor vote as soon as next week. “Of course it’s not everything I’d want, but I think it’s a solid agreement that basically passed the House last year,” House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday during a press conference. Ted Poe (R-Texas) would block the spy agency from using powers under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act to collect Americans’ Internet communications without a warrant. The bill’s speedy movement through committee after being introduced just on Tuesday signals the blessing of both House leadership and the heads of the Intelligence Committee.

Under the NSA program that has become the focus of the debate, the government collects and stores five years’ worth of records recording the numbers, times and durations of phone calls made within the U.S. It’s not encouraging that a massive amount of its funds are going towards a single facility in Utah. “The $1.7 billion facility, two years in the making, will soon host supercomputers to store gargantuan quantities of data from emails, phone calls, Google searches and other sources,” reporter Rory Carroll wrote in an article for The Guardian. “Sited on an unused swath of the national guard base, by September it will employ around 200 technicians, span 1 million square feet and use 65 megawatts of power.” Distressing still is the limited usefulness of the base.

The NSA has relied on the powers of Section 702 to conduct its “PRISM” and “Upstream” collection programs, which gather data from major Web companies such as Facebook and Google, as well as to tap into the networks that make up the backbone of the Internet. A key obstacle remains in the upper chamber, as Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has said he cannot support the bill until he has further discussions with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Federal officials insist they only store the data and don’t peruse it unless they have a specific reason to believe a number is relevant to a terrorism investigation. But civil libertarians say collecting and holding the data in the first place is an abuse, and point to the conclusions of several reviews that say the information hasn’t been relevant in stopping terrorist plots. That’s not even touching the fact that the vast majority of data collected is from innocent Americans who have nothing to do with national security.

The effort is likely to meet some resistance from defense hawks and civil libertarians alike, who alternately worry that it would go too far or not nearly far enough to rein in government spying on Americans. That clean authorization is cosponsored by Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, who has said it is meant to be a starting point more than a final deal.

The bill that cleared the House committee Thursday would prohibit indiscriminate collection of data and also reins in federal investigators’ ability to demand information through secret national security letters. Unsurprisingly enough, the NSA is having trouble storing all this data. “The intelligence people I’ve spoken to are warning of data crunch – a polite way of saying they’re drowning,” intelligence historian Matthew Aid told The Guardian. “They say they don’t have enough capacity and will be back to Congress looking for more money to expand.” This seems greatly counter-productive. The move to drop the fix was all the more frustrating, supporters of the amendment said, because Congress overwhelmingly voted 293-123 to add similar language to a defense spending bill last year. “How can it be when the House of Representatives has expressed its will on this very question, by a vote of 293-123, that that is illegitimate?” asked Rep. The NSA’s collection and storage of U.S. “to and from” landline calling records — times, dates and numbers, but not content of the calls — was the most controversial program among many disclosed by former NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden.

The careful tightrope the bill will have to walk was on full display during Thursday’s markup, when lawmakers debated for nearly an hour whether or not to expand the legislation to also cover NSA snooping on people’s Internet communications. It would instead allow NSA analysts to ask for call metadata—the numbers, time stamps, and duration of a call but not its content—from phone companies on an as-needed basis after obtaining judicial approval. Simply there is no good reason to reauthorize these provisions, as even top government officials admit that mass collection is not worth the price tag.

It would also allow U.S. tech firms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to disclose more information about government data requests made via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and give these companies more leeway in how they can respond to national security orders. The NSA justifies this giant collection on the basis of its relevance in the fight again terror, however, the President’s Review Board found the opposite to be true. “Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional orders,” the Board said in a report titled “Liberty and Security in a Changing World.” Why pay for something of this size that is “non-essential?” Moreover, the President himself has called for the removal of the provisions in question in an attempt to “to give the public greater confidence that their privacy is appropriately protected,” according to whitehouse.gov. National Security should not be an all-encompassing excuse for the government to pass whatever laws it wishes; they should hold some relevance to the issues at hand.

Some, such as those at the Center for Democracy & Technology, support the language, arguing it represents the best chance in Congress to nab substantive surveillance reforms in years. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, however, are not offering their blessings, instead advocating a complete sunset of the Section 215 authorities. That is partly due to several national security concessions not directly related to mass phone surveillance made to cajole both the House and Senate intelligence committees to be more palatable to the package, such as a provision to increase the maximum penalty for those who offer material support to terrorism from 15 to 20 years. John Conyers, the Judiciary panel’s top Democrat. “We negotiated this bill in good faith.” Privacy advocates were particularly dismayed to see an amendment shot down that had been offered by Republican Rep.

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