Future Tense

U.S. Lawmakers Launch Assault on NSA Domestic Snooping

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

It may seem strange for civil liberties groups to join forces with a lawmaker who helped mastermind broad government surveillance powers. But after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s recent leaks of spying secrets, it seems anything is possible. On Tuesday, the USA Freedom Act was introduced in the Senate and House as part of a major bipartisan effort to curb the scope of NSA snooping following the Snowden disclosures. The legislation, which has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 70 in the House, was jointly crafted by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Back in 2001, Sensenbrenner was an outspoken national security hawk and a key architect of the Patriot Act, a law that controversially bolstered government surveillance powers. However, he clearly has some regrets—and now wants to see the government’s spying programs reined in significantly. The USA Freedom Act would end the NSA’s bulk daily collection of virtually all Americans’ phone records as part of a sweeping program first revealed in June, when the Guardian published a secret court order. The law would also bring in new limits on the retention of data on Americans gathered by the NSA “incidentally” through Internet surveillance programs like Prism. Additionally, it would strengthen the oversight process by introducing a “special advocate” who would promote privacy interests in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And transparency measures would be introduced, too, forcing the government to make public secret legal interpretations and allowing companies to reveal the amount of spying orders they receive. Since Snowden’s leaks, there have now been more than 20 bills aimed at reforming government surveillance powers introduced on Capitol Hill. However, the USA Freedom Act is by far one of the most comprehensive. That is reflected in the support it has attracted from a diverse range of groups, including the ACLU, the NRA, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Association of American Publishers. Mozilla is also lending its backing, saying that the bill “takes an important step toward rebuilding user trust by adding limitations on government collection of data in the name of national security.” It seems highly unlikely that all of the provisions in the USA Freedom Act will eventually pass into law. But the support that the legislation is receiving from lawmakers in both the Senate and the House is an illustration that reform of the NSA, whether moderate or drastic, is all but an inevitability. Even Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., usually a loyal defender of the intelligence community, has come out in support of a surveillance review. For Snowden, who said his biggest fear about leaking was that “nothing will change,” proposals like those contained in the USA Freedom Bill will surely bring some relief. In particular, having members of Congress like Sensenbrenner on board will feel like vindication for the 30-year-old whistle-blower. Back in 2006, Sensenbrenner dismissed privacy groups’ concerns about surveillance under the Patriot Act as “exaggeration and hyperbole,” saying that there was not “a single substantiated claim that the Patriot Act has been misused to violate Americans’ civil liberties.” But after Snowden’s revelations, Sensenbrenner performed a remarkable volte-face, saying he was “appalled” to learn how the government had used the Patriot Act to collect millions of ordinary Americans’ phone records. “Somewhere along the way,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement Tuesday, “the balance between security and privacy was lost.”