House approves “watered-down” NSA reforms
posted at 12:41 pm on May 22, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
A bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives passed sweeping changes to US surveillance law — but for some, the changes don’t sweep enough. On a 303-121 vote, the House sent the USA Freedom Act to the Senate, while NSA critics complained of watered-down reforms that don’t go far enough to rein in domestic surveillance:
The House on Thursday passed the most sweeping changes to the country’s intelligence operations in over a decade, voting to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to snoop on communications.
The USA Freedom Act, which passed 303-121, had run into opposition from some of the NSA’s biggest critics, who warned that the legislation had been gutted in recent weeks. Fifty-one Republicans and 70 Democrats voted against the bill.
The bill, written by Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), codifies many of the surveillance reforms supported by President Obama and effectively ends the government’s bulk collection of phone records.
Sensenbrenner wasn’t all that enthusiastic about his own bill, but argued that it was the best that could be produced at this time. Bloomberg News has good coverage of the debate:
The White House expressed its pleasure over the passage of the bill:
Not everyone is as pleased, especially not the tech companies on the front lines of this surveillance:
The measure also reduces from three to two the number of “hops,” or degrees of separation, away from a suspected target the NSA can jump when analyzing communications. The amended language, however, dropped a provision that would have allowed companies to disclose the level of surveillance orders received under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and it codifies a two-year delay for making some surveillance orders public.
But the new version of the bill that emerged Tuesday—the product of more than a week of backroom negotiations among House leadership, the White House and the intelligence community—endured a thorough lashing from tech giants like Google and Facebook and a number of privacy watchdogs like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Open Technology Institute.
Of particular concern is the bill’s altered definition of “specific selection term,” which provides a framework for how intelligence agencies would be required to define their desired targets when conducting a search of phone records. An earlier draft, including one passed two weeks ago by the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, defined selectors as “a person, account or entity.” The new bill tacks on words like “address” and “device” to the list and contains language that critics argue could be interpreted loosely.
In addition to worries about phone records, the Reform Government Surveillance coalition—whose members include Google, Facebook, Apple and others—expressed doubt late Wednesday that the bill could also open “an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data.”
Rep. Justin Amash, one of the Freedom Act’s original cosponsors and a vocal critic of NSA spying, announced Thursday morning he was also voting no on the measure because it “codified a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program” and violated the Fourth Amendment.
Meanwhile, the prime driver of this debate remains in Russia — but not forgotten by the US intelligence community. Portions of a highly-classified Pentagon review of the Edward Snowden theft were released by a FOIA action, and the assessment of Snowden’s actions is that it caused “grave” damage to US national security, with the scope of the stolen material “staggering”:
A top-secret Pentagon report to assess the damage to national security from the leak of classified National Security Agency documents by Edward Snowden concluded that “the scope of the compromised knowledge related to US intelligence capabilities is staggering”.
The Guardian has obtained a copy of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s classified damage assessment in response to a Freedom of Information Act (Foia) lawsuit filed against the Defense Department earlier this year. The heavily redacted 39-page report was prepared in December and is titled “DoD Information Review Task Force-2: Initial Assessment, Impacts Resulting from the Compromise of Classified Material by a Former NSA Contractor.”
But while the DIA report describes the damage to US intelligence capabilities as “grave”, the government still refuses to release any specific details to support this conclusion. The entire impact assessment was redacted from the material released to the Guardian under a presidential order that protects classified information and several other Foia exemptions.
Only 12 pages of the report were declassified by DIA and released. A Justice Department attorney said DIA would continue to process other internal documents that refer to the DIA report for possible release later this year.
The USA Freedom Act goes to the Senate, which will probably produce something similar enough to settle in a quick conference committee, if the White House is on board already with the House effort. The next question Congress should tackle is the safeguards within the defense and intelligence agencies to prevent such a “staggering” theft of data from occurring again, while strengthening paths for legitimate whistleblowers to expose abuses and illegal activities.