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Surveillance reform now a real possibility

With the approval of two House committees, the first major bill introduced since Edward Snowden's leaks were made public stands a good chance of becoming law.
A cell phone with an American flag cover is held up during a rally  in Sterling, Virginia.
A cell phone with an American flag cover is held up during a rally in Sterling, Virginia.

Suddenly everyone's getting along. 

The House Intelligence Committee passed a surveillance reform bill Thursday by voice vote, a measure identical to one approved by the House Judiciary Committee the day before. 

With the House Intelligence Committee's approval, the first major reforms to U.S. surveillance law stand a decent chance of becoming law by the end of the year. It also means avoiding a divisive battle on the House floor and spares the Republican leadership in the House from having to take sides.

"The bill reported unanimously today by the Intelligence Committee is a very important step on the road to ending bulk collection and reforming the metadata program," said California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the intelligence committee, in a statement shortly after the vote. "It is also an indication of the emerging consensus on how to reform our surveillance authorities while preserving the capabilities we need to protect our nation."

The effort to reform the U.S. government's surveillance powers once looked like it was shaping up to be a turf battle between supporters and critics of the National Security Agency's telephone metadata program. The metadata program collects, in bulk, records indicating the time, duration and numbers involved in phone calls.

The scope of the program was first revealed last June by a secret foreign intelligence surveillance court order leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Last July, the House came within a handful of votes of defunding section 215 of the Patriot Act, the authority the U.S government uses to justify the program as legal. 

Now both sides of the NSA fight seem to have come together. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner introduced a sweeping surveillance reform bill last October, dubbed the USA Freedom Act. Sensenbrenner and his allies on the House Judiciary Committee sacrificed much of that proposal to gain the support of their colleagues.

That the House Intelligence Committee abandoned its proposal in favor of Sensenbrenner's indicates just how much the two camps have converged. Though the bill no longer represents the kind of across-the-board changes civil liberties groups were hoping for at the height of the backlash, they are still supporting the measure. 

The new, far less sweeping bill, still called the USA Freedom Act, allows the government to acquire records up to two degrees, or "hops," away from the target of an inquiry, but only with the permission of the secret surveillance court. Previously, the NSA obtained records as many as three "hops" away from a target. The rival version abandoned by the House Intelligence Committee would have allowed the government to acquire records without prior judicial approval unless a company refused to comply with the request.

Civil liberties groups still have a number of concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union penned a letter to the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday praising the bill, but urging lawmakers to make changes.

Among the complaints: Dropped from the original version of the USA Freedom Act was a provision preventing the government from searching the content of Americans' communications if collected while targeting sources believed to be overseas. An effort by California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren to ban such "backdoor searches" was voted down by the judiciary committee Wednesday, with Sensenbrenner saying he didn't want to "blow up" the delicate compromise over the bill. 

"While the legislation is not perfect, it looks like Congress will have the chance to pass meaningful surveillance reforms for the first time since the Patriot Act was passed in 2001," Laura Murphy of the ACLU said in a statement shortly after the intelligence committee vote. "This vote is a clear sign that the balance is shifting away from excessive NSA spying and back toward liberty."