WASHINGTON — House leaders have reached a bipartisan compromise on a bill that would end the National Security Agency’s controversial collection of American phone records, but the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the latest version of a bill known as the USA Freedom Act by a bipartisan vote of 25 to 2. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama’s proposal to end the NSA’s collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations.
The authority to collect those records and other related surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act will expire June 1 unless Congress passes a law reauthorizing it. The House bill would do that, with changes. Senate leaders have introduced a bill that would reauthorize the provisions with no changes, allowing the NSA to continue collecting phone records.
A similar bill to the one that cleared the Judiciary Committee passed the full House last year by a bipartisan vote of 303 to 121 but narrowly failed a procedural vote in the Senate. The Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the bill’s provisions had been carefully negotiated with both the intelligence committee and intelligence agencies.
During the hearing, lawmakers said a deal had been reached to bring the USA Freedom Act to the floor without going through the intelligence committee, where many Republicans support continuing the NSA bulk collection.
The NSA’s collection and storage of U.S. “to and from” landline calling records — times, dates and numbers, but not content of the calls — was the most controversial program among many disclosed by former NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden. Some NSA officials opposed the program, and independent evaluations have found it of limited value as a counterterrorism tool.
Goodlatte said the House bill would create a “narrower, targeted program,” that will still allow the NSA to hunt for connections between foreign terrorists and U.S. residents.
“We must act decisively to end bulk collection in the United States,” said Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat.
“For years, the NSA has collected our phone records, yet it cannot point to a single attack that the collection has stopped,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who was one of the Patriot Act’s original authors.
Some lawmakers offered amendments they said would toughen the bill’s civil liberties provisions, but those were voted down, with other lawmakers saying they would kill the deal and empower those who want to continue NSA phone records collection.
A civil liberties group praised the bill.
“The USA Freedom Act of 2015 offers an effective path forward in reforming overbroad domestic surveillance and putting an end to the bulk collection of Americans’ communications,” said Nuala O’Connor, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.