Congress Wrestles over NSA Data Collection Authority

CongressThe debate over the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) authority to monitor private data has worked its way to Capitol Hill this week after members of the House passed a new bill that would severely curb government access to information obtained through bulk data collections.  Although the legislation received overwhelming support, several Senators have expressed doubts that the version passed by the House sufficiently protects the American public from threat of terrorism, and have promised to vote against the measure when it reaches the Senate floor.  With the Congressional mandate providing the NSA with its current authority nearing an end, representatives in the House and Senate look to resolve differences in order to maintain a level of security against potential terrorist threats without violating American civil liberties.

House Limits NSA Authority

After months of bipartisan collaboration, members of the House passed the newly minted USA Freedom Act on a 338 – 88 vote.  The heavily supported bill presents a drastic shift in federal surveillance policy by taking phone “metadata” out of the reach of government agency and placing additional limitations on what the NSA can do with its access to private phone information. Currently, the NSA is authorized to collect private phone records from millions of Americans, store these records in a database, and, with judicial authorization, can search specific numbers whose users are suspected of terrorist activity.  After Edward Snowden unearthed the scale of the NSA surveillance operation, many Americans, including President Obama, expressed serious concern that the government’s programs were too intrusive into the privacy of American citizens.

The authority for the NSA to gather private phone data comes from the 2001 Patriot Act passed in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, and the time limit on the legislation lapses in early June.  If a new bill granting NSA authorization to conduct surveillance is not passed by June 1st, the agency will lose the ability to conduct widespread monitoring that many argue is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.  In an effort to allow for continued monitoring without overextending government authority, the House’s USA Freedom Act takes phone metadata out of government hands, keeping it instead in possession of private phone companies. 

If the NSA wants to search phone records, it may do so with a court order, but only for specific terms that identify persons of interest.  The NSA would not be allowed to have widespread access to Internet or phone data for entire regions, bringing an end to bulk data collection that has brought unrest to civil liberty advocates across the country.  Provisions of the Freedom Act also allow tech companies to restrict access to private records, and would require the government to make the data access process more transparent. Despite the support of the House, the Senate appears reluctant to support the bill as written, setting the stage for a debate between the two houses pitting security concerns against civil liberties.

Senate Pushes Back on Restrictions to NSA Surveillance

Republicans in the Senate have led a vocal protest against the House bill, warning that passing it would cripple the ability of the NSA to effectively monitor terrorist activity and keep the country safe.  Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) cautioned lawmakers against adopting the House measure by saying, “When you do away with bulk storage, you basically have an unworkable system in real time, and part of this program’s design is that it works in real time. We’re ahead of a threat. We don’t want to be behind a threat.”

Other Senators have echoed Burr’s statements, expressing concern that the Freedom Act would effectively neuter the NSA, and cost the government a key component of its security force protecting American citizens.  In response to the Senate criticism, House lawmakers have argued the Freedom Act strikes a fair balance that not only allows the NSA to retain sufficient authority to do its job, but restores a measure of trust in the government that has waned in the years since Snowden publically unveiled a potentially discomforting truth about the extent of NSA surveillance.  As written, the Freedom Act faces stiff opposition on its road to law, but with the deadline for Congressional authority granted the NSA looming, both houses of Congress will need to work together if the agency is to retain any surveillance privileges after June 1st.

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