Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced an NSA reform bill that would update the USA Freedom Act.
Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced an NSA reform bill that would update the USA Freedom Act.

In a bill aimed at ending government spying on Americans and bolstering privacy, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation that updates the USA Freedom Act.

Building on a bill passed by the House of Representatives in May but roundly criticized as too diluted to meaningfully challenge the dragnet collection of phone records during domestic surveillance revealed by the Edward Snowden leaks last year, Leahy's proposed NSA reform legislation includes oversight and accountability requirements as well as transparency.  

Katharine Kendrick, policy associate at the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU Stern School of Business, told SCMagazine.com in a Wednesday interview that “one of the most promising things in the bill is that it adds back in the section on transparency” that didn't appear in the House bill.  

That was a sentiment echoed by Nadia Kayyali, a member of the activism team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in a Wednesday interview with SCMagazine.com.

The legislation would effectively put an end to bulk collection of data under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a provision that has long rankled privacy advocates. 

While saying the bill “doesn't do everything we want it to do” and acknowledging that “no single bill could,” EFF praised Leahy's legislation for putting the kibosh on Section 215 data collection. The Senate bill requires that FISA business records applications must be based on what it calls “specific selection term.” 

The House, too, used the “specific selection term” standard that “specifically identifies a person, account, address or personal device” but the language in Leahy's bill more narrowly defines that term saying that it limits “the scope of information or tangible things.”

The bill also drew kudos from Kayyali for creating a special advocate position in FISA court. “That's big for us,” she said, noting that the EFF could not have gotten that position legislated through its efforts. She explained that adding the position “will help people understand what's going on in FISA court.”

Leahy's bill would further reform the court by building more procedures for reviewing and appealing decisions coming out of FISA court, meaning that the court's rulings can be challenged and interpreted by Review Court justices.

Leahy's efforts to introduce stronger NSA reform have met with support from privacy advocates like the EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

In a blog post, ACLU's Neema Singh Guiliani said, “To put this in historical context: If the Senate passes the bill, it will be the first time since passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 that the chamber has taken action to constrain the intelligence community, and the first time Congress has a real shot at restoring the crucial privacy protections lost in the Patriot Act.”

And EFF's Kayyali called the bill a “first step toward reform.”