A bill to limit widespread spying by the National Security Agency would continue to allow the U.S. to secretly obtain large amounts of data on innocent Americans.
Senate leaders ended a standoff Tuesday by agreeing to vote on a House-passed bill that would prohibit the NSA from collecting bulk records while renewing three U.S. spy programs set to expire in two weeks.
The bill is touted by supporters as representing one of the most significant overhauls of national security laws in decades. Privacy advocates question whether the measure will significantly curtail NSA spying powers revealed in 2013 by former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden.
“The intent is to narrow collection, but the reality is it’s written in such a way that it’s ambiguous,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It doesn’t end broad collection that could sweep up information about innocent Americans.”
The bill is the only piece of legislation curbing NSA powers that Congress has been able to advance two years since the Snowden revelations. Under it, the NSA could still collect Internet Protocol addresses used by thousands of people from companies like Google Inc. or Yahoo! Inc., records of international money transfers and information about all guests staying at the same hotel.
By allowing a vote, which could take place on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky relented to pressure from Democrats and Internet companies that back the legislation. The bill, called the USA Freedom Act, passed the House on May 13 in a 338-88 vote.
It was unclear if the bill has enough votes in the Senate. McConnell and Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told reporters Tuesday they were seeking a backup plan, which could include trying to pass a temporary one-month extension. Democrats said they oppose short-term action.
Three provisions of the USA Patriot Act expire on June 1. McConnell and other lawmakers have said it would be dangerous if the authorities lapsed for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The bill would end one of the most controversial spying programs exposed by Snowden under which the NSA has collected phone call records on millions of Americans. Instead, the NSA would have to obtain a warrant from a court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to obtain individual phone records held by telecommunication companies.
The bill also would prohibit the NSA from collecting all records from Internet companies as well as data from a broad region in the U.S., such as a city, county, state, zip code or area code.
“We have a way to solve this right now,” Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. “Do what the House did. They reflected the will of the American people. Republican and Democrats came together on an overwhelming bipartisan vote.”
However, the bill doesn’t require the government to purge records of innocent Americans it collects that are unrelated to terrorism investigations, or adequately report how many Americans have had their communications and other data swept up by spying, Guliani said.
Privacy groups who helped negotiate the bill said they had to make concessions, meaning the language prohibiting broad spying isn’t as ironclad as they wanted.
“It would be very difficult to legislate something that provides absolute certainty for privacy as well as absolute certainty for security,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, which supports the bill. “But by prohibiting nationwide dragnets, the legislation is still a major improvement on the status quo.”
The groups will continue to press for more restraints. “Even if this reform legislation were to pass, we readily acknowledge that the Patriot Act can still be used to collect information on groups that is larger than we are comfortable with,” Geiger said in a phone interview.
“This does not solve all the problems with surveillance,” Geiger said. “Congress should not assume that passing this bill solves all the problems.”
McConnell’s decision on the House bill is a reversal from previous efforts to prevent the legislation from coming before the Senate. He led opposition to a similar measure last year when his party was in the minority.
It would be “a bad outcome” if the authority expired under Republicans, who took control of the House and Senate in January, Thune said in an interview.
McConnell and Thune may be counting on the House bill failing to get 60 Senate votes to advance. Democrats would then either have to support a temporary extension or allow the authorities to expire.
“I hope that, if we put the House bill up over here and it doesn’t get to 60, that we then pivot to a short-term extension that would allow us additional time to work this out,” Thune said in an interview. “The House is in a very different place right now than where I think a majority of Senate Republicans are.”
A temporary extension “would be a missed opportunity,” Google, Facebook Inc., Yahoo and seven other Internet companies said in a letter to senators Tuesday. The companies, which formed the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, have made passing the bill one of their top legislative priorities.
They’re facing a backlash over revelations that the U.S. collects data about their users and are trying to assure domestic and international customers that they stand up to excessive government spying.
“Our companies came together two years ago to push for essential reforms that are necessary to protect national security, strengthen civil liberties, reaffirm user trust in the Internet, and promote innovation,” they wrote. “The Senate can begin delivering on those reforms by passing the USA Freedom Act.”
Republican leaders also will have to overcome procedural obstacles from within their own party, as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said he’ll try to prevent renewing the surveillance powers.
While Paul, who is seeking the 2016 Republican nomination for president, can attempt to hold up the bill with an extended floor debate, McConnell can end the effort by collecting 60 votes to move forward.
The House-passed bill is H.R. 2048.
For more, read this QuickTake: The NSA's Gigantic Haystack