The House passed a controversial bill Thursday, May 22, aimed at reforming the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records, a policy that came to light due to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, would shift responsibility for retaining telephonic metadata from the government to telephone companies. Providers like AT&T and Verizon would be required to maintain the records for 18 months and let the NSA search them in terrorism investigations when the agency obtains a judicial order or in certain emergency situations.
The bill passed on a 303 to 121 vote. But privacy advocates, technology companies and lawmakers warned that the version of the bill passed by the House was watered down to the point where they could no longer support it. On Wednesday, the White House endorsed the bill. “The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,” an official statement of policy read.
“Among other provisions, the bill prohibits bulk collection through the use of Section 215, FISA pen registers, and National Security Letters.” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) was the primary sponsor of the bill and the author of the Patriot Act, legislation passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Section 215 of the Patriot Act was used as the legal basis of the NSA’s phone records collection program.
In a floor speech before the vote, Sensenbrenner said that the government misapplied that earlier legislation through a feat of “legal gymnastics.” “I don’t blame people for losing trust in their government because the government betrayed their trust,” he said. Sensenbrenner urged his fellow members to support the bill, although he said wished the version of the bill voted on Thursday “did more.”