House Judiciary Committee Votes to Reform Surveillance Programs, End Bulk Collection of Phone Records

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday unanimously passed legislation that would reform intelligence-gathering programs under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), including the controversial practice of collecting a heap of data on Americans’ phone records.

“Today’s strong, bipartisan vote by the House Judiciary Committee takes us one step closer to ending bulk collection once and for all and safeguards Americans’ civil liberties as our intelligence community keeps us safe from foreign enemies who wish us harm,” several lawmakers in the House said in a joint statement.

The USA Freedom Act would prohibit bulk collection of data and require the government seeking collection of call detail records to obtain approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to the House Judiciary Committee, which voted 32 to 0 in favor of the legislation. The bill creates a panel of legal experts to help ensure the same court considers privacy concerns and Americans’ constitutional rights. And the government would be required to disclose the number of requests made for call detail records under the new collection program, the Committee said.

The bill moves on to the House Intelligence Committee, which is considering another proposal.

Americans have been increasingly concerned about their privacy after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents that uncovered a number of global surveillance programs.

In a statement Wednesday, the author of the USA Freedom Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), said a decision by a FISA court has opened the door for the federal government to collect bulk records in an unprecedented fashion.

“In a feat of legal gymnastics, the Administration convinced the FISA court that, because some records in the universe of every phone call Americans make are relevant to counterterrorism, the entire universe of those calls must be relevant,” stated Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee.

Kevin Bankston, policy director for New America’s Open Technology Institute, hailed the passage of the USA Freedom Act by the House Judiciary Committee.

“This historic vote by the House Judiciary Committee to ban the government’s bulk collection of any records – telephone records, Internet records, financial records, or any others – is a milestone in the push to rein in the NSA’s surveillance authority,” he said in a statement. 

The House Intelligence Committee has proposed a separate bill that Bankston claimed doesn’t go far enough to reform the law.

The FISA Transparency and Modernization Act of 2014 would put an end to bulk collection of metadata under FISA, including phone, email and Internet metadata, while codifying a prohibition on the bulk collection of personal records such as firearm sales records, library records and tax returns, according to a March 25 press release from Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who introduced the legislation along with Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.). The proposal would only authorize the government to obtain metadata to protect the United States against terrorists and other foreign bad actors in a targeted manner and would include judicial review, said Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.  

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