Bipartisan bill re-ups USA Freedom reauthorizations, aims at surveillance reform

The House Tuesday introduced bipartisan legislation that lawmakers touted as reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court (FISC) based on recent recommendations from the Justice Department inspector general (IG) and ends the government’s controversial domestic surveillance program, but which detractors say doesn’t represent reform at all.

The bill, USA Freedom Reauthorization Act, bumps up congressional oversight of the FISC and imposed penalties on those found using FISC process for political gain. The act also requires transcripts of goings-on in the court. Three surveillance authorizations in the existing agreement were set to expire March 15.

Calling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “one of the most complicated, technical statutes” Congress handles and which needs more reform than the new bill provides, Rep. Jerry  Nadler, D-N.Y., said “some measure of surveillance is necessary to keep our country safe.” Nadler warned that “left unchecked, however, the executive branch is all too willing to unleash its considerable surveillance capabilities on the American people.”

Nadler said it was up to Congress, “to provide that critical check—to claw back authorities that go too far, and to press for changes that protect our civil liberties to the maximum extent possible” and that USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act, H.R. 6172, “is one step in that ongoing project.”

He hailed the bill for ending "NSA’s call detail records program, which began as part of a secret and unlawful surveillance project” about 20 years ago.

“This bill before us represents real reform to the FISA program,” said Rep. Jim Jordan. “These reforms have long been necessary but have been especially warranted in recent years, given the FBI spying on the Trump campaign affiliate Carter Page.”

When the bill came out of the Rules Committee, Christopher Anders, ACLU deputy political director, said it fell short. "After weeks of huffing and puffing over FISA surveillance abuses, Congress has delivered yet another half-measure and is now trying to jam it through with little debate and no amendments,” Anders said. “With only minimal improvements over current law, the reforms in this backroom deal fall far short of what is needed to protect our privacy rights. Secret courts still can issue secret orders and the federal government can “continue spying on Americans without the kind of oversight and adversarial process that all Americans should expect of our government and our courts,” he said. “If President Trump wants to do right by Carter Page and all Americans, he should demand surveillance reforms that at minimum afford Americans their most basic due process rights."

The ACLU sent a letter to the House urging lawmakers to reject the legislation. Calling the U.S. surveillance laws broken, the ACLU National Political Director Ronald Newman and Senior Legislative Counsel Neena Singh Guliani, said the proposed legislation fails to require individuals receive appropriate notice and access to information when FISA information is used against them, fully address those shortcomings that led to illegal surveillance, limit the types of information that can be collected or raise the standard for collection under Section 215 or appropriately limit retention of that information.

"It is by no means a perfect bill,” Nadler acknowledged. “There are many other changes to FISA that I would have liked to have seen here—but this bill includes important reforms.”

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