Sen. Leahy Introduces USA Freedom Act To Reign In NSA

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One of the most vocal opponents of the NSA's surveillance program has been Sen. Patrick Leahy. He's promised for a while now that he would bring some sort of anti-NSA legislation to the floor, and he's now done that with the help of Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner.

Last night, Leahy began to circulate an outline of what he calls the USA Freedom Act. The bill would drastically limit what the NSA can do while ending some of its more controversial surveillance programs. It would also make both the NSA and FISA court more transparent.

To start, Leahy's bill would end the bulk collection of Americans' phone metadata under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It would limit the collection of phone metadata to international terrorism or clandestine intelligence investigations. It would also require any and all investigations to pertain to one of the following:

  • A foreign power or agent of a foreign power.
  • The activities of a suspect agent of a foreign power who is the subject of an investigation.
  • An individual in contact with, or known to, a suspected agent of a foreign power.
  • That already sounds pretty good, but Leahy's bill goes even further by prohibiting the use of "reverse targeting." For those unaware, this is a tactic used by the NSA to obtain the communications of Americans in the name of investigating a foreign threat.

    As for incidental data collection, it would require the NSA to "aggressively filter and discard information about Americans collected through PRISM and related programs."

    Moving on, Leahy's legislation would work to reform the FISA court. It would create what Leahy calls the Office of the Special Advocate, or OSA. The OSA would be able to appeal decisions made by the FISA court, and would be staffed by lawyers cleared to view classified materials.

    More so, it would require the FISA court to regularly report to Congress on issues relating to its decisions. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board would also be given subpoena authority to "investigate issues related to privacy and national security."

    As for transparency, it would require the Justice Department to declassify all FISA court decisions made after July 10, 2003 that "contain a significant construction or interpretation of law." It would also allow private companies to disclose estimates of the number of federal data requests they receive while requiring the government to disclose an estimate of the number of FISA orders it sends out on an annual basis.

    Finally, Leahy's bill would adopt a "single standard for Section 215 and NSL protection to ensure the Administration doesn't use different authorities to support bulk collection." It would also add a "sunset date to NSLs requiring that Congress reauthorize the government's authority thereby ensuring proper congressional review."

    So, what do you think? It's a pretty good set of rules that would go a long way in reigning in the NSA. It might be able to get pretty far as well thanks to it being backed by Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman. In fact, the only real challenge it will face comes from Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. She has consistently supported the NSA's powers and has vowed to everything she can "to prevent this [phone data] program from being canceled."

    Despite Feinstein's challenge, Leahy's bill faces an even greater threat - the continued government shutdown. Until Congress can work together to pass a CR, we're not going to see anything done to the NSA. Of course, it doesn't really matter at this point anyway as 75 percent of the NSA's civilian workforce has been furloughed.

    [Image: Patrick Leahy/Facebook] [h/t: The Hill]