House-Approved USA Freedom Bill Disappoints Original Supporters

A year after President Obama urged for more safeguards for civil liberties in intelligence collection, the House passed new guidelines. But civil liberties watchdogs say they no longer support it.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to consider now changing perceptions toward fighting terrorism. President Obama has suggested that eventually the war on terror must end and that the nation must think about the tools used to fight it. Here he is speaking a year ago today at the National Defense University.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: From our use of drones to the tension of terror suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.

CORNISH: In the year since, public attitudes have changed and people are more skeptical. But actual practices haven't changed too much. In a moment we'll hear more about the use of drones. But first NPR's David Welna reports on surveillance and legislation to curb the bulk collection of phone records.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: By a nearly three to one margin, big majorities yesterday of both House Republicans and Democrats passed the USA Freedom Act. House Speaker John Boehner had a simple explanation for why so many members of both parties agreed to curtail the National Security Agency's nationwide dragnet of calling records that was disclosed last year.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: People are a lot more comfortable that the government is not storing all of this metadata that we were.

WELNA: The vote also followed considerable backroom revisions to the bill this week, moves, Boehner said, brought the White House pretty close to the position of House Republicans. The NSA would no longer be authorized to collect and hold for five years the records of Americans Communications.

Officials would have to go to the phone companies with a court order to extract records which are normally held for a year-and-a-half. And as Michigan Democrat John Conyers noted, the bill also requires more transparency from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN CONYERS: Although it's not perfect, the bill itself will require the public disclosure of all significant opinions of the FISA Court.

WELNA: Still some of the bills original sponsors ended up voting against it. California Democrat Zoe Lofgren complained the terms for targeting data were too loose and did not guarantee bulk collection won't continue.

REPRESENTATIVE ZOE LOFGREN: Regrettably, we have learned that if we leave any ambiguity in law, the intelligence agency will run a truck right through that ambiguity. And I think that's why all the civil liberties groups have withdrawn their support from this bill.

WELNA: Indeed, Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute says he and other civil liberties watchdogs are far from satisfied.

KEVIN BANKSTON: So we're hopeful that we will be able to get at least some of the key reforms that were watered down in this House version of the USA Freedom Act reinserted in the Senate.

WELNA: Even Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner who wrote much of the original USA Freedom Act found the revised version lacking. The bill, as he put it, failed to lock the door and throw away the key when it came to preventing bulk collection.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES SENSENBRENNER: I wish this bill did more. To my colleagues who lament the changes, I agree with you. The privacy groups who are upset about lost provisions, I share your disappointment.

WELNA: Still Sensenbrenner insisted Americans were better off with this bill than without it. The NSA might still be watching us, he said, but now we can watch them. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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