FISA allows U.S. government agencies to conduct surveillance on the communications of non-U.S. persons located on foreign soil. The bipartisan bill, which passed 27-8, clarifies that U.S. authorities may query “702” surveillance databases for communications content if it is for national security reasons, but need a probable cause-based order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to view and disseminate such information for the purpose of finding criminal evidence (with two notable exceptions).
The proposed legislation also includes new provisions that require intelligence agencies to keep records of and periodically on instances in which a U.S. citizen's communications were incidentally collected during a surveillance operations, as well as instances in which a American citizen was unmasked.
The bill also increases the penalty for those who leak classified information from up to one year to a maximum of five years, making the act a felony.
“The USA Liberty Act is a carefully drafted, bipartisan bill that protects Americans' lives and their civil liberties,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), in an official press release. “This bill…contains more accountability, transparency, and oversight so that the American people have confidence that our cherished liberties continue to be protected as the intelligence community keeps us safe from foreign enemies wishing to harm our nation and citizens.”
In the same release, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) added, “For months, we have examined Section 702 and have reached consensus that Section 702 should be reauthorized if it can be brought better in line with values like privacy, transparency, and due process. The USA Liberty Act does just that.”
Last October, a coalition of rights organizations, including American Civil Liberties Union, announced that they would not support the USA Liberty Act.
“Though this bill has positive elements, it must be improved as it moves forward. Disappointingly, the committee failed to adopt improvements that would help close the ‘backdoor search loophole,'” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the ACLU, in reaction to the bill's passage through committee. “The loophole has been used by the government to read and listen to Americans' emails, phone calls, and text messages collected under Section 702 without a warrant. As a result, the bill risks locking in current illegal practices into law without adequate limits to protect Americans' constitutional rights.”
“Existing law provides no justification for allowing the government to search for Americans' communications for ‘foreign intelligence' purposes without a warrant. Yet, this is precisely what this bill would allow,” Guliani continued. “We urge Congress to remedy this problem as this bill advances.”