Lawmakers introduce bill to rein in NSA telephone records program

The legislation would end the bulk collection of U.S. telephone records, sponsors say

A bipartisan group of more than 85 lawmakers has introduced legislation to end the U.S. National Security Agency's broad collection of U.S. telephone records by imposing new restrictions on who the agency can target.

The USA Freedom Act, cosponsored by 16 senators and more than 70 representatives, would require the NSA to show the records it seeks to collect are related to a foreign power, a suspected agent of a foreign power or a person in contact with a suspected agent. The bill, introduced Tuesday, would require the NSA to get court orders to search U.S. residents' communications obtained without individualized warrants.

Sponsors of the bill include Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and main author of the Patriot Act of 2001, the law the NSA points to as authority for the bulk telephone records collection program.

Government surveillance programs "are far broader than the American people previously understood," Leahy said in a statement. "It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community."

More limited proposals to add transparency and oversight to the NSA process, expected soon from the agency's allies in Congress, are "not enough," he added.

Sensenbrenner defended the original Patriot Act, passed weeks after terrorists attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, by saying the law has helped to keep the U.S. safe. "But somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost," he said in a statement. "It's now time for the judiciary committees to again come together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected."

The bill would also sunset the FISA Amendments Act -- the law that the NSA has used as authority to conduct mass overseas surveillance -- in June 2015, instead of the current December 2017. After the sunset, Congress would have to pass a bill again to reauthorize the overseas surveillance programs under the law.

The bill would create a new office of special advocate to argue in favor of privacy interests at the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that court that reviews and approves the NSA surveillance requests, and it would allow Internet and telecom companies to report on the number of surveillance requests they receive from the U.S. government. Those companies are currently barred from disclosing that information.

The USA Freedom Act is one of more than 20 bills introduced by U.S. lawmakers since press reports on NSA surveillance, based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, began appearing in June. The new bill incorporates pieces of several other bills previously introduced.

An NSA spokeswoman declined to comment on the new legislation.

The bill is largely focused on the NSA's domestic data collection and surveillance programs, not as much on its massive overseas efforts. The agency's overseas surveillance programs have raised the ire of many U.S. allies, with the Guardian newspaper reporting in the past week that the U.S. has monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone.

Among the groups voicing support for the USA Freedom Act were digital rights groups Public Knowledge and Demand Progress and tech trade groups the Information Technology Industry Council and the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

The bill represents a growing realization in Congress that the NSA needs to be reined in, said David Segal, Demand Progress' executive director.

"When the Snowden leaks first emerged in June -- and after years of disregard for our civil liberties by our own government -- it was unclear whether our efforts to rein in the NSA would even find more than a handful of strong allies in Congress," he said by email. With the introduction of the bill, "it is increasingly clear that many in the halls of power are listening to the tens of millions across this country who know that the NSA must be restrained."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentsecurityprivacylegislationtelecommunicationComputer and Communications Industry AssociationInformation Technology Industry CouncilPatrick LeahyPublic KnowledgeU.S. National Security AgencyU.S. CongressDemand ProgressDavid SegalJim SensenbrennerAngela MerkelEdward Snowden

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