(This post is from our new blog: Unofficial Sources.)
Last night the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives voted 8-3 along party lines against proposals to allow the full House to consider amendments to the USA Freedom Act. The House is now scheduled to vote on the bill this afternoon under rules that forbid any changes.
Congressional critics of the National Security Agency from both parties had prepared a number of amendments that would have strengthened privacy protections in the bill. While The New York Times characterized the USA Freedom Act as “the strongest demonstration yet of a decade-long shift from a singular focus on national security at the expense of civil liberties to a new balance in the post-Snowden era,” organizations that advocate greater restrictions on government surveillance are currently divided on whether the legislation’s narrow reforms are better or worse than the status quo. A senior intelligence official earlier this month said the bill is “hardly major change.”
“On this issue in particular, I think Congress has gotten it wrong on so many occasions going back to the PATRIOT Act,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told the committee, calling for all members to have an opportunity to change the bill on the floor.
“Not allowing people to have amendments on this bill doesn’t give me great confidence that we’ll get it right,” he added.
The committee’s chair, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, claimed that allowing changes to the bill could upset a delicate balance struck between lawmakers on both sides of aisle, the White House and the intelligence community.
His comments were echoed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who urged the committee to “make sure that the carefully negotiated agreement that has broad support on both sides of this house is maintained.”
Among the amendments that now can’t be considered was a measure that would have prevented the NSA from performing warrantless searches on databases that include the communications of U.S. persons — a practice that Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., described as the “backdoor search loophole.”
The amendment, which had bipartisan support from prominent civil liberties advocates including Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., would have also prevented the NSA from weakening encryption standards.
Another measure, sponsored by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., would have put a check on Executive Order 12333 — a crucial, secretive rule through which the executive branch granted itself spying authorities. The amendment would ban the use of the order to collect data in bulk on American citizens without a warrant.
An amendment offered by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., would have prevented U.S. spies from using authorities granted by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to target foreign individuals with the aim of also acquiring Americans’ data. The Colorado lawmaker also put forward a measure that would have extended the USA Freedom Act to the Justice Department in a move designed to prevent bulk collection at law enforcement agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration — an agency that was running its own telephone dragnet for decades, according to a USA Today report in April.
“Because of the closed process House leaders have opted for, none of these amendments will receive a vote or even a debate on the House floor,” Rep. Polis told The Intercept, noting that “the lack of transparency is particularly troubling given the significant privacy and national security implications of this bill.”
“This is exactly the type of behavior that leads the American public to have such low regard for this institution,” Rep. Polis added.
Sam Sacks is a writer and reporter living in Washington, D.C. He is the co-founder of the watchdog news site The District Sentinel.
Photo: Rep. Pete Sessions (Oliver Douliery/Getty Images)