The House on Thursday passed legislation to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American phone records, the first legislative response to the disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Although the compromise measure was significantly “watered down,” in the words of Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, it passed by a vote of 303 to 120, with 9 members not voting.
“We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Schakowsky, an intelligence committee member, said in summing up the feelings of many Republicans and Democrats who voted for the measure but wanted tougher provisions. Dropped from the bill was a requirement for an independent public advocate on the secret intelligence court that oversees the NSA.
The USA Freedom Act would codify a proposal made in January by President Barack
Obama, who said he wanted to end the NSA’s practice of collecting the “to and from” records of nearly every American landline telephone call under a program that searched the data for connections to terrorist plots abroad.
The bill doesn’t ask the phone companies to hold records for any longer than they already do, which varies by carrier. The bill would give the NSA the authority to request certain records from the companies to search them in terrorism investigations in response to a judicial order. The phone program was revealed last year by Snowden, who used his job as a computer network administrator to remove tens of thousands of secret documents from an NSA facility in Hawaii.
The measure now heads to the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the intelligence committee, has said she is willing to go along with a similar idea.
NSA officials were pleased with the bill because under the existing program, they did not have access to many mobile phone records. Under the new arrangement, they will, officials say.
“I believe this is a workable compromise that protects the core function of a counter terrorism program we know has saved lives around the world,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the House Intelligence Committee chairman.
Privacy and civil liberties activists denounced the measure, saying it had been “gutted” to win agreement from lawmakers such as Rogers who supported the NSA phone records program.
“This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ private information,” Nuala O’Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.