The Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make substantial modifications to the Patriot Act, including revisions to intelligence agencies' bulk collections of data that have angered many people at home and abroad.
The bill, now called the USA Freedom Act, would allow challenges to national security letters and it makes significant changes to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, including declassification of its decisions on private data requests and collection.
The legislation would also makes some changes to how the government tracks people as they move in and out of the United States. Basically, when a suspected terrorist enters the United States, intelligence agencies can continue tracking that person for up to 72 hours while the government seeks a warrant.
The bill also allows companies under orders to collect personal data for the government to challenge gag orders, and it allows them to discuss national security letters (orders by the FBI to turn over information without a warrant) with certain third parties, primarily their legal counsel, if they want to challenge the orders. Companies will also be allowed a bit more leeway to disclose how they respond to national security letters.
The bill has very strong bipartisan backing in the House and it is expected to pass there around mid-May. The new bill is strongly backed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), author of the Patriot Act.
"At the heart of this legislation is the reform of Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] to prohibit bulk collection of any business records. Bulk collection is also prohibited under the FISA Pen Register/Trap and Trace Device authority and National Security Letter authorities," wrote Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in his statement describing the legislation.
"In place of the current bulk telephone metadata program, the USA Freedom Act creates a narrower, targeted program that allows the Intelligence Community to collect non-content call detail records held by the telephone companies, but only with the prior approval of the FISA Court," Goodlatte wrote. He noted that the law also creates a panel of experts to advise the FISA on civil liberties, privacy, communications technology and other related matters.
However passage in the Senate is another matter. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is opposed to the bill, as is Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and both senators have the ability to kill the bill if they so desire.
The question is whether their opposition to the Freedom Act is strong enough that they are willing to take the necessary action to kill it.