A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has reintroduced legislation aimed at ending the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephone records across the country.
Four senior members of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee planned to reintroduce the USA Freedom Act late Tuesday. The House passed a watered-down version of similar legislation in last May, but the Senate failed to act on it before November's elections.
The new bill would end all bulk collection of telephone and other business records under the Patriot Act, the antiterrorism legislation passed in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing to amend and vote on the new bill this Thursday.
The bill would, however, create a new surveillance program focused on telephone call details if there is a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that the search is associated with a "foreign power engaged in international terrorism."
The Patriot Act's business record collection provision is due to expire in June, unless Congress renews it. "As several intelligence-gathering programs are set to expire in a month, it is imperative that we reform these programs to protect Americans' privacy while at the same time protecting our national security," said a statement by the sponsors of the bill, Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican; Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican; John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat; and Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat.
The bill "enhances civil liberties protections, increases transparency for both American businesses and the government, ends the bulk collection of data, and provides national security officials targeted tools to keep America safe from foreign enemies," the statement added.
A Senate version of the 2014 USA Freedom Act won approval from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but some senators suggested that ending the NSA telephone records collection program would make the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism.
The new version of the bill would prohibit large-scale collection of records from an entire state, city, or zip code. It would also allow businesses who get records requests from the FBI through its national security letter program to challenge orders requiring those businesses to keep quiet about those requests.
The bill would also create a new panel of experts at the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to advise judges about privacy and civil liberties, communications technology, and other technical or legal matters.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that has advocated for surveillance reforms following the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, praised the lawmakers for reintroducing the bill.
"While the bill is neither a perfect nor complete reform of all the NSA's mass surveillance authorities, it significantly narrows the ability of the NSA to collect call records and offers greater transparency, which is essential for citizens in a free society," CCIA President and CEO Ed Black said by email.