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House passes watered down surveillance reform bill

The House passed a watered down surveillance reform bill Thursday with bipartisan support, but critics say it will do little to protect Americans' privacy.
Edward Snowden's leaks exposed the National Security Agency's vast reach, embarrassed the president and provoked outrage around the world. But all that seems to have been no match for the sausage-making process in Congress.

The House passed a surveillance reform bill Thursday with broad bipartisan support, but critics say it will do little to protect Americans' privacy. 

Lawmakers who vowed to rein in the NSA's surveillance powers emerged two weeks ago with compromise legislation that would ensure the agency could not collect phone records in bulk. That legislation seemed poised for passage after unanimously clearing two House committees with bipartisan support and with the conditional backing of civil liberties groups, who supported it despite reservations about the new narrow scope of the bill.

But then the bill was watered down even further. The version of the legislation that emerged Wednesday revised the bill to place fewer restrictions on how the government makes record requests.

Civil liberties groups fear the new version could allow the government to resume record collection similar to the kind that it was doing before former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks. The changes reportedly came at the request of the Obama administration and the intelligence community. 

The original USA Freedom Act, crafted by Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, went far beyond just curtailing the phone records program. But the compromise version that passed the House judiciary and intelligence committees last week settled for revamping Section 215 of the Patriot Act to ensure the government could not collect private records in bulk and making it easier for private companies to disclose details of government data requests.

Even with the old compromise version, the government would have been able to request records up to two degrees away from the target of any search, which would still have given them access to potentially hundreds of thousands of records. Requests would be approved by the secret foreign intelligence surveillance court, as long as the government could prove there is a "reasonable articulable suspicion" of a connection to terrorism or espionage.

Yet even those changes reportedly weren't enough for the administration and the intelligence community, which reportedly pushed for changes that would allow the government more leeway in how it defines the targets of searches.

As the House prepared to vote on the revised bill Thursday morning, a split emerged between reformers who acknowledged criticism from civil liberties groups but said the bill was still worth supporting, and those who said the bill would no longer do what it was intended to do.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation backed off supporting the bill, saying that it "cannot support a bill that doesn't achieve the goal of ending mass spying." The Center for Democracy and Technology also withdrew its support.  

"I share your disappointment," Sensenbrenner said to civil liberties advocates, urging them not to "let the perfect become the enemy of the good." New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, one of the authors of the original compromise, acknowledged the bill was "far from perfect" but insisted that "a no vote today would mean no reform at all."

Other supporters of the original compromise said they could no longer support the bill. 

California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who tried but failed to amend the bill in committee to reinsert reforms that had been stripped out, said that "this is not the bill that was reported out of the judiciary committee unanimously." 

The new language, Lofgren said, simply gave the government too much leeway to interpret the law to draw more surveillance authority than intended. 

"If we leave any ambiguity in the law, the intelligence will drive a truck through that ambiguity," Lofgren said. "The result is a bill that will not end bulk collection." 

The revelation of the scope of the NSA’s phone records program, which collected the time, duration, and numbers involved in phone calls, sparked public anger and was later criticized by two government panels and a federal judge as unneccessary to prevent terrorism.

Civil liberties groups hope the bill could be improved once it reaches the Senate.