Sen. Patrick Leahy revisits surveillance reform.
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Reformers take another crack at surveillance


After plenty of setbacks in Congress, advocates of surveillance reform are giving it another shot. 

“This is a debate about Americans’ fundamental relationship with their government – about whether our government should have the power to create massive databases of information about its citizens,” said Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who introduced new surveillance reform legislation Tuesday. ”I believe strongly that we must impose stronger limits on government surveillance powers – and I am confident that most Vermonters, and most Americans, agree with me.”

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Much to the dismay of civil liberties groups, efforts to rein in government surveillance powers a year after the first disclosures facilitated by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden
fell victim to congressional sausage making. Civil liberties groups withdrew their support from a surveillance reform measure that passed the House in May, after deciding that the legislation had been watered down so completely that it was no longer worth passing.

Originally meant to prevent the government from engaging in “bulk collection” of records similar to the controversial phone metadata program, the bill left the government so much leeway in defining its targets that civil liberties groups feared that large-scale data collection would continue in some form. Some of the congressional backers of a previous, more comprehensive reform effort ended up all but apologizing to their colleagues on the House floor even as they insisted the new bill was better than nothing. 

Leahy’s latest effort is drawing more praise from civil liberties groups. 

“From our perspective, the bill is a pretty significant improvement from the House version,” said Neema Gulani of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’ll have a real impact.”

Nevertheless, civil liberties groups still have some complaints. Although Leahy’s bill ends “bulk collection” as civil liberties groups define it, (as opposed to how the government defines it) the bill doesn’t address so-called “backdoor searches.” The government is technically barred from collecting the content of Americans’ communications without a warrant, but Section 702 contains a loophole allowing the government to keep content it collects while ostensibly “targeting” exchanges believed to be taking place overseas. 

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall, two longtime critics of government surveillance, released a joint statement Tuesday afternoon praising Leahy’s bill but saying they wanted to alter the bill to address “backdoor searches.”

“Congress needs to close this loophole, and we look forward to working with Chairman Leahy and our colleagues to address this issue when the bill comes before the full U.S. Senate,” Wyden and Udall said.

As for the bill’s chances of passage, Leahy said Tuesday that the legislation was the result of months of negotiations with stakeholders, including those in the intelligence community. 

“In developing this legislation, I have consulted closely with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA, the FBI, and the Department of Justice – and every single word of this bill was vetted with those agencies,” Leahy said in his floor statement.
Gulani was optimistic. “We’ve seen pretty bipartisan support for surveillance reform, it’s one of the few issues where we’ve seen real movement in a bipartisan fashion,” said Gulani. “The hope is that both sides can come to an agreement.”