By Elizabeth Holland
Today, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a compromise version of the USA FREEDOM Act that would significantly limit government surveillance of Americans’ communications. AALL has joined a number of open government groups in a letter of support for the bill and urges Congress to pass it promptly, without weakening the legislation.
In May, the House passed a substantially diluted version of the USA FREEDOM Act, causing many privacy and transparency advocates, including AALL, to withdraw their support. The new Senate bill, which has the backing of the Obama Administration, restores many of the privacy and transparency measures that were removed in the House. The new bill would prohibit the National Security Agency’s (NSA) collection of phone records and Internet data in bulk by establishing narrowly defined specific selection terms. The bill would also require the NSA to report more information to the public and would create a panel of special advocates to support privacy rights before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In a statement, Leahy said the bill would be the “most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act 13 years ago.” The Center for Democracy & Technology offers this excellent comparison chart of the House and Senate versions.
With Congress headed home for the month of August and only a handful of legislative days remaining before the November midterm elections, time is of the essence. It’s widely believed Leahy will push to put the bill directly on the Senate floor in early September. While the new USA FREEDOM Act isn’t perfect, the bill offer an important compromise between the White House, Congress, companies, privacy advocates, and the intelligence community, and is our best opportunity for limiting government surveillance of Americans’ communications.