WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday passed legislation to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American phone records, responding to the outrage that followed former NSA analyst Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the practice last year.
Although the compromise measure was significantly “watered down,” in the words of Democrat Jan Schakowsky, it passed by a vote of 303 to 120, with 9 members not voting.
“We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Schakowsky, an intelligence committee member, said in summing up the feelings of many Republicans and Democrats who voted for the measure but wanted tougher provisions. Dropped from the bill was a requirement for an independent public advocate on the secret intelligence court that oversees the NSA.
The USA Freedom Act would codify a proposal made in January by President Obama, who said he wanted to end the NSA’s practice of collecting the “to and from” records of nearly every American landline telephone call under a program that searched the data for connections to terrorist plots abroad.
The bill doesn’t ask the phone companies to hold records for any longer than they already do, which varies by carrier. The bill would give the NSA the authority to request certain records from the companies to search them in terrorism investigations in response to a judicial order. The phone program was revealed last year by Snowden, who used his job as a computer network administrator to remove tens of thousands of secret documents from an NSA facility in Hawaii.
The measure now heads to the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the intelligence committee, has said she is willing to go along with a similar idea.
NSA officials were pleased with the bill because under the existing program, they did not have access to many mobile phone records. Under the new arrangement, they will, officials say.
“I believe this is a workable compromise that protects the core function of a counter terrorism program we know has saved lives around the world,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican chairman.
Privacy and civil liberties activists denounced the measure, saying it had been “gutted” to win agreement from lawmakers such as Rogers who supported the NSA phone records program.
“This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ private information,” Nuala O’Connor, president and chief executive of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.
Technology companies such as Google and Facebook also withdrew their support, saying they were concerned about language they fear could allow bulk collection of Internet data. Proponents say that concern is misplaced.
The White House endorsed the measure.
“The bill’s significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement Wednesday.
House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat, said the bill is perhaps the most significant action Congress will take in response to the Snowden leaks. The former NSA contractor handed journalists documents that revealed a host of once-secret NSA surveillance programs, including some that sweep in the personal information of Americans even as they target foreigners.
Outrage over the programs that Snowden publicized brought together conservatives and liberals who favor civil liberties, while the administration and congressional leadership resisted changing what they considered a useful counterterror tool.