The White House Is Trying to Weaken the NSA Reform Bill: Report

The USA Freedom Act will likely be completely gutted before the House of Representatives votes on it.

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May 19 2014, 6:00pm
People in Washington DC protested NSA mass surveillance last fall. Image: Jason Koebler

Even after it was watered down in committee earlier this month, civil liberty groups cautiously supported the NSA-reforming USA Freedom Act. Well, word is, the bill is going to be completely gutted before it actually hits the floor of the House of Representatives, which could come later this week.

Already, the bill contained several loopholes that the NSA could have used to continue most of its mass surveillance campaigns. But the bill was still seen as being better than no reform at all—if it's weakened any further, the groups that pushed for the bill in the first place are likely to remove their support.

Except, according to several reports and sources within civil liberty groups, the bill is likely to be watered down even further before it’s considered by the full house. The Hill reported this weekend that there are ongoing “last stage negotiations” between the House and the Obama administration that could “significantly weaken provisions in the NSA bill.” 

That’s what I’ve heard from several civil liberty groups as well, who are waiting to see whether the bill is amended or rewritten before officially deciding whether to pull their support. All indications suggest that the full House will consider the bill later this week, though it’s unclear whether these last-minute changes, none of which have become public or have been leaked yet, will push that schedule back.

“The support for this bill is not ironclad,” Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told The Hill. “They cannot simply weaken it and expect the same support.”

Already, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and CDT were calling for the bill to be strengthened before it hit the House floor. With the Obama administration involved (Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian has a good look at how Congress’ lawyers are looking to close loopholes in the current text language, and how the NSA’s lawyers are looking to exploit them), it’s looking more likely that, if anything, the bill will be made weaker.

“The bill includes several components critical to meaningful reform … we respectfully urge you to oppose efforts to weaken [the] provisions in this historic bill,” roughly two dozen civil liberties groups wrote to Congress this weekend

The letter suggests that Congress close several loopholes the NSA could use to continue targeting specific people for surveillance and asks for the bill to contain better transparency measures, such as the appointment of a special civil liberties advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. 

With word that the Obama administration is now meddling in the proceedings, that possibility seems like a pipe dream, and a bill that was, as few as several weeks ago, heralded as a huge step forward, could become completely toothless.