CAPITOL HILL— The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation to curb the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records. Supporters say the USA Freedom Act strikes a balance between protecting privacy and safeguarding national security. Critics say the legislation’s reforms have been “watered down.”
Thursday's House vote passing the USA Freedom Act was 303-121, and did not play out along the usual Republican versus Democratic Party lines.
It is the first legislative response to the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which triggered international outrage at the scope of U.S. surveillance. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers has often condemned Snowden, and the Michigan Republican took aim at him again on the House floor, while praising the bill.
“Our obligation to protection in this country should not be held hostage by the actions of a traitor or traitors who leak classified information that puts our troops in the field at risk or those who fear monger and spread mistruth and misinformation to further their own misguided agenda," said Rogers.
Rogers and a coalition of some Democratic and some Republican lawmakers said the reform act preserves U.S. intelligence capabilities while maintaining personal liberties.
Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas agreed:
“Today I want to announce that megadata collection as we know it has ended. That is a major tribute to the American people," said Jackson Lee.
But a number of lawmakers from both parties, including one of the co-sponsors of the original bill, said that too many important provisions were lost as the bill made its way through congressional committees to the House floor. Democratic Representative Mike Honda of California:
“I am disappointed that this popular, bipartisan bill has been so drastically weakened, and I can no longer support it," said Honda.
The bill instructs phone companies to hold on to Americans’ phone records for 18 months and lets the NSA search them during terrorism investigations in response to a court order. President Obama supports the bill, but civil rights advocates and technology companies withdrew their support. They say the original bill has been “gutted” to win support from Rogers and others. The measure now heads to the Senate and is likely again to be the focus of heated debate.