'Clean' USA Freedom Act Clears House Judiciary

After voting down a series of amendments that backers said would kill the bill, the USA Freedom Act passed out of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday by a vote of 25 to 2.

The bill, which is billed as a stronger version of one that passed in the House last session but fell short in the Senate, would end bulk metadata collection by the National Security Agency, require the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to make public key decisions on allowing what would be more targeted NSA surveillance, and gives the targets of surveillance requests--the telecoms with the data--more flexibility in disclosures of those data requests to the public.

The bill prevents bulk collection by narrowing the search terms and allowing searches only two "hops" from original targeted communications (as in communications from parties to a second party), rather than the current three (from second parties to a third).

House leadership had signaled that if the bill did not pass out of the committee clean and without amendments, it would not get a floor vote, while on the Senate side a straight Patriot Act reauthorization has been proposed that would essentially mean the bulk collection could continue.

As a result, the markup featured legislators passionately supportive of amendments they had to vote against for the sake of getting any bill passed, a point made more than once.

Among the amendments defeated were ones that would prevent the government from pressuring tech companies from putting back door weaknesses into their systems to allow for government surveillance, that would require a probable cause warrant for surveillance requests, and one that would have made telecoms the guardians of data to be searched, and allow the government to pay them to preserve that data longer than they currently do for business (usually billing) reasons.

All had supporters, including among those that voted against them.

There was much talk about the perfect bill being the enemy of the good bill that can actually pass.

Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), pledged that the issues raised in the amendments would get hearings elsewhere, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) pledged to help push for the amendment prohibiting those tech "back doors" to surveillance and the probable cause requirement on appropriations bills, but that it would blow up the USA Freedom Act and its needed reforms, even if they were short of perfect.

Issa said that the Patriot Act had been an overly broad reaction by an understandably shaken country to 911, and that after initial efforts to narrow its scope had been "rolled," it was important to remove the excesses, like bulk collection, which had been used by Presidents of both parties.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said the bill fell short of what he wanted, but was an improvement over last session's bill and a vast improvement over current law. But the key to the bill was that it could pass and be signed by the President.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.