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Politics and Government

Bipartisan Bill Would Stop NSA's Bulk Phone Data Collection


Nearly one year ago, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had been secretly scooping up records of millions of Americans' phone calls. The NSA is still doing that. Yesterday, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill voted unanimously, in committee anyway, for a bill that would end key parts of that practice.

NPR's David Welna has our report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Its bipartisan sponsors call it the USA Freedom Act. That's a clear allusion to the law it's meant to correct, the hastily passed USA Patriot Act, which vastly expanded government surveillance powers after the 9/11 attacks. As the House Judiciary Committee took up the bill yesterday, Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner said it made crystal clear that Congress does not endorse the NSA's bulk collection of phone data.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Today's bill unequivocally ends bulk collections across all the NSA authorities and under national security letters.

WELNA: Should it become law, the measure would make good on President Obama's vow early this year to end the NSA's ongoing practice of ordering phone companies to turn over call records so they can be stored for five years and consulted if deemed necessary. The House bill orders those phone records instead be kept by the phone companies for a typical period of 18 months.

Records can only be consulted by prior court order and the targets must be foreigners. Overall, there are fewer protections for civil liberties in the bill taken up yesterday than in an earlier version. Still, the panel's top Democrat, John Conyers, strongly endorsed it.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN CONYERS: I believe that we've arrived at a compromise that represents the legitimate consensus of the Congress and the support of the American people. But there is certainly more work to do.

WELNA: In fact, the panel added a provision yesterday allowing private U.S. technology firms to issue reports twice a year on how many times they've been asked to turn over data to federal investigators. California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, who represents part of Silicon Valley, said doing so could help point to any NSA abuse.

REPRESENTATIVE ZOE LOFGREN: The technology companies are, to some extent, the canary in the mine for us, and if we are able to learn because of the transparency provisions, the scope of what is occurring, that would be of great interest to the committee itself.

WELNA: The only real challenge to the bill came from Iowa Republican Steve King, who thought the government should be holding onto the phone data for five years, rather than the year and a half that the phone companies keep it. But the panel's Republican chairman, Bob Goodlatte, defended the measure, even invoking the Democratic president.

REPRESENTATIVE BOB GOODLATTE: The notion that private companies should retain records for a longer period of time than they do currently in their normal course of business was specifically not contemplated by President Obama when he announced in January his desire to end bulk collection by the government.

WELNA: The measure passed the committee by a vote of 32-0. It's now headed for the full House. A rival measure being considered today by the House Intelligence Committee puts fewer restrictions on federal surveillance. But Harley Geiger of the nonpartisan Center For Democracy and Technology says the skids appear to be greased for the judiciary panel's bill.

HARLEY GEIGER: The best signal for congressional leadership that the House judiciary bill of the USA Freedom Act should make it to the floor was the fact that it passed out of the Judiciary Committee unanimously, and that is rare for the Judiciary Committee and especially on an issue that can be as divisive as national security.

WELNA: Still, the legislation's a long way from becoming law. The Senate judiciary panel will only get to the same bill this summer. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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