One day after the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, a second committee has approved the same bill.
The House Intelligence Committee, in closed session, voted to approve the USA Freedom Act Thursday instead of advancing the committee's own NSA reform bill. Many privacy groups had criticized the Intelligence Committee bill, called the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, saying it would have made minimal changes to the NSA's mass collection of U.S. telephone records.
Instead, the Intelligence Committee, by voice vote, approved the USA Freedom Act, which would require the NSA to get case-by-case court approval before collecting the telephone or business records of any U.S. resident.
The FISA Transparency and Modernization Act was among a group of NSA bills that did little to fix the problem of bulk collection, Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Nadia Kayyali wrote in a recent blog post. "These bills don't just put lipstick on a pig," she wrote. "They actually create new legal authority for NSA spying while providing political cover to its biggest supporters."
The USA Freedom Act, which now heads to the House floor for a vote, would also limit the controversial bulk collection program by allowing the FBI, asking on behalf of the NSA, to request U.S. phone records from carriers only if there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that the information sought pertains to a foreign power, an agent of a foreign power, or a person in contact with a foreign power.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the USA Freedom Act by a 32-0 vote on Wednesday.
The Intelligence Committee did not consider its own bill during its meeting Thursday, a spokeswoman said. The committee's decision to instead approve the USA Freedom Act allows House leaders to avoid choosing between the bills when scheduling a vote on NSA reforms.
The sponsors of the Intelligence Committee bill, Representatives Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, and Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, said they were pleased with the committee's vote on the competing bill.
"Enhancing privacy and civil liberties while protecting the operational capability of a critical counterterrorism tool, not pride of authorship, has always been our first and last priority," they said in a joint statement. "We are pleased the House Judiciary Committee reached a compromise that garnered strong, bipartisan support."
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the committee's vote. "This vote is a clear sign that the balance is shifting away from excessive NSA spying and back toward liberty," Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "The momentum is on the side of privacy rights and limiting government power, and now the full House can pass a bill that rolls back bulk collection of Americans' communications."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.