The NSA's snooping program took its first major legislative hit Wednesday when the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill banning the government from bulk collection of Americans' data, rolling back the government's claims of power under the Patriot Act.
Both Republicans and Democrats joined together to back the changes, which cleared without a single dissenting vote in committee and which is now expected to serve as the basis for debate as Congress moves to rein in the National Security Agency and assert a new balance in snooping versus privacy.
"Today's strong, bipartisan vote by the House Judiciary Committee takes us one step closer to ending bulk collection once and for all and safeguards Americans' civil liberties as our intelligence community keeps us safe from foreign enemies who wish us harm," the Democrats and Republicans who negotiated the compromise deal said in a joint statement.
Their bill not only bans bulk collection of data through the Patriot Act, but also specifically says other parts of law, including existing wiretap laws and executive order 12333, cannot be used to justify bulk data collection on Americans inside the U.S.
Civil liberties groups said it was a good step, but still leaves open the chance for intelligence agencies to collect data outside of the U.S. They wanted to see the same protections for Americans inside the country extended to Americans worldwide.
The NSA's snooping, which gathered and stored the times, durations and parties involved in nearly every call made within the U.S., was one of the agency's closely held secret programs until former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed it in leaks to the media last year.
"This is a historic turn of events in our government's approach to counterterrorism policies," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, who credited Mr. Snowden's disclosures with helping spur the debate.
The Obama administration at first defended the program but, facing public pressure and a growing bipartisan consensus in Congress, has since said bulk collection should end.
Wednesday's vote marks the first time a congressional committee approved severe restrictions on the program.
The Senate intelligence committee passed a bill last year in a closed-door session that essentially backed the government's snooping powers, though with more reporting requirements.
The House intelligence committee is expected to take up the issue in a closed-door session on Thursday.
In Wednesday's committee action, the authors of the compromise defended it from changes sought by those on both the right and left.
Democrats wanted some stiffer protections they said would try to close what they saw as potential loopholes left in the bill that the government could use to still collect data on Americans incidentally.
Meanwhile, a handful of Republicans pushed for an amendment that would have pushed the government to enter into contracts with phone companies to hold data for up to five years — the length of time that the government currently stores the telephone metadata.
"I seem to be the only one bringing up the national security side here, and the risk we have," said Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who pushed for the change.
He said some phone companies only store data for a year and a half or so, which could mean three and a half years of capability would be lost.
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said that would be making the wrong statement in a bill designed to add more protections for Americans' privacy. He said it would send the signal that the government still believes it has a right to the telephone metadata, even if it's still held by private companies.
"It says they really ought to keep it — all this private data ought to be at the disposal of the government," he said. "It goes against the spirit of what we're trying to say, which is that the government doesn't own all your private data."
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