Multichannel News - Bills Introduced to Rein in Govt. Blanket Surveillance

January 30, 2014
In The News

Billed as way to curb info 'dragnet,' have bipartisan friends in high places

By John Eggerton

The USA FREEDOM Act was introduced in both Houses of Congress Tuesday. The bill would address surveillance abuses, described by bill co-sponsor and Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as providing "reasonable limits on the surveillance powers we give to the government."

The bill was co-sponsored by chair of the House Terrorism Subcommittee Sen. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)--co-sponsor of the PATRIOT ACT--who said the bill would "rein in the dragnet collection of data by the National Security Agency and others, boost transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court and provide more transparency about FISA requests.

The bill would end bulk and blanket collection of communications records, instead limiting them to documents relevant to a specific investigation.

"These are all commonsense, bipartisan improvements that will ensure appropriate limits are placed on the government’s vast surveillance powers," Leahy said.

The bill was also introduced in the House by over 70 members--from both parties, as was the case with the Senate bill--including House Communications subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

“The NSA took advantage of the laws Congress wrote to spy on Americans, and it’s imperative to correct them,” Eshoo said in a statement. “This legislation ensures that surveillance of Americans ceases and puts in place safeguards to prevent this from happening again. The critical balance between national security and the constitutional rights of the American people must always be honored.”

Eshoo pointed to some of the FISA court-related reforms. Currently, only the government can present evidence to FISA court in seeking to access records. The result, she says, is that 99.7% of government surveillance requests over the last three decades have been approved. The bill would create a public advocate, a sort of public defender for the public interest.

The bill would also: "require the court to publish declassified summaries of all its major decisions and interpretations of the law; "allow Internet companies to disclose estimates of the number of FISC orders they receive each year, and how many users are impacted."

The bills drew applause from the ACLU, Free Press, computer companies and others.

"Although the USA FREEDOM Act does not fix every problem with the government's surveillance authorities and programs, it is an important first step and it deserves broad support," blogged ACLU legislative council Michelle Richardson.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association said the bills were a step toward needed reforms. “Due to the stifling secrecy that has shrouded these programs for too long, the public and even some Congressional leaders, currently lack sufficient information to precisely define the contours and boundaries that are necessary in this area," said CCIA President Ed Black. "We hope the upcoming legislative process will fill this void and provide the insights to undertake the major reforms that are now clearly necessary.  I commend the Leahy/Sensenbrenner legislation for this beginning. It is vital to reform and properly focus our current surveillance system.”