The Republican author of the Patriot Act in the House and the senior Democrat in the Senate teamed together Tuesday to write a bill that would stop the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records and require a court order if the government wants to search through Americans’ communications.
“Somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost. It’s now time for the judiciary committees to again come together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who sponsored the Patriot Act in 2001, and has written the new bill along with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill sets up a major clash that will likely play out the rest of this year as Congress grapples with the revelations about government snooping.
The Senate intelligence committee is poised to vote later Tuesday on a bill that would preserve NSA’s ability to collect data about Americans’ phone calls, with some tighter restrictions and more reporting.
“Modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough. We need real reform,” Mr. Leahy said.
The new bill earned words of encouragement from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who called it an important part of the debate but signaled that any final legislation will look different.
“With each revelation of the scope of NSA’s intelligence gathering programs, it’s increasingly clear that we need to take legislative action with regard to these programs to ensure that they adequately protect Americans’ civil liberties and operate in a prudent manner,” Mr. Goodlatte said.
The debate centers around Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to demand records from businesses as long as officials say it is part of an authorized investigation into terrorism. No warrant or probable cause is needed.
The administration has used those powers to ask phone companies to turn over so-called “metadata” about calls made within the U.S., including which numbers were dialed from each number. The NSA stores the data for five years but says it generally doesn’t access the data unless it is pursuing a particular terrorism lead, and it then can search up to three levels of connections to a number.
A secret court judge has said that collecting telephone records is constitutional and said Section 215 makes it legal. She said any changes will have to come from Congress.
Known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection, and Online Monitoring Act, or USA FREEDOM Act, the bill also takes steps to make sure the administration doesn’t just shift the legal justification for bulk records collection to another part of the law.