House Approves Curbs on NSA Snooping (Updated) (Video)
Updated May 22, 1:38 p.m. | After a year of global criticism of the reach of American phone and data surveillance programs, the House approved new restrictions Thursday that critics dismissed as watered down.
The USA Freedom Act — backed by Republicans and Democrats and supported by President Barack Obama — would shift the collection and storage of phone metadata from the National Security Agency to private phone companies.
The measure passed 303-121, with critics on both sides of the aisle saying the bill would not do enough to curb potential abuse and provide legislative oversight of intelligence agencies.
Some privacy advocates pulled support for the measure this week, calling it hollow and riddled with loopholes.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who led the battle to end the NSA’s bulk metadata collection last summer and was a co-sponsor of the Freedom Act, posted a lengthy explanation why he was voting against the bill.
Amash said the bill on the floor Thursday didn’t look much like the Freedom Act he was involved with drafting.
“This morning’s bill maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program,” Amash said. ”It claims to end ‘bulk collection’ of Americans’ data only in a very technical sense: The bill prohibits the government from, for example, ordering a telephone company to turn over all its call records every day.”
He added that the bill was so weakened in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the past week that the government could still order — without probable cause — a telephone company to turn over call records.
The Michigan Republican joined a band of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats to vote against the bill. In total, 51 Republicans joined 70 Democrats in opposition.
While those lawmakers suggested the bill did not go far enough in curbing metadata collection, many did note that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that approves government surveillance would be forced to publish its most significant opinions, giving Americans some insight into the government’s surveillance. And the bill would authorize, though not require, the FISA court to appoint lawyers to argue for Americans’ privacy rights. The court currently hears from just one side before ruling.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said the bill maintains an important national security program while addressing concerns that the NSA had overstepped its authority.
“People are a lot more comfortable that the government is not storing all this metadata that we were,” he told reporters. “And I think we also in this bill make it clear that there’s no access to this data without a court decision, and the standards for that decision are higher than what they were.”