Governance & Risk Management , Privacy , Standards, Regulations & Compliance

Obama Backs Ban on NSA Bulk Collection

Administration Urges Congress to Pass USA Freedom Act
Obama Backs Ban on NSA Bulk Collection
President Obama consults with legislative aides in the Oval Office.

President Obama is strongly urging the House and Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill that would ban the National Security Agency's bulk collection of metadata on American citizens' telephone calls.

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The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy on May 12 endorsing the legislation that the House approved by a 338-88 vote on May 13. The bill's fate remains uncertain in the Senate (see House Votes to Ban NSA Bulk Collection Program)

"The USA Freedom Act's significant reforms would provide the public greater trust and confidence in our national security programs and the checks and balances that form an integral part of their operation," the White House statement says.

Quick passage of the USA Freedom Act is being sought because critical authorities granted by the USA Patriot Act for the administration to conduct certain types of intelligence gathering expires on June 1. One of those authorities, found in the Patriot Act Section 215, was used by the Bush and Obama administrations to justify the metadata bulk collection program. On May 7, a federal appeals court ruled that the administrations' misinterpreted Congress' intent with the Patriot Act by wrongfully allowing the NSA to collect the metadata, which the court deemed illegal (see The Implications of Court's NSA Ruling).

On April 30, the House Judiciary Committee approved the USA Freedom Act by a 25-to-2 vote, setting up this week's vote by the House (see Panel Votes to End Bulk Collection) .

Wide Support for the Measure

The Obama administration's endorsement of the USA Freedom Act isn't surprising, considering the bill's growing support from Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as outside groups. In February, the White House modified the NSA's bulk data collection program by placing limits on it, including the deletion of collected data after five years unless the Director of National Intelligence determines the information is needed for intelligence investigations (see Administration Modifies Data Collection Rules).

If enacted, the USA Freedom Act would prohibit the NSA's previously secret practice of conducting large-scale, indiscriminate collection of communications records, such as all records from an entire state, city or ZIP code. Instead, it would allow authorities to seek court approval to obtain specific communications records based on a threat to national security. The secret program was unveiled nearly two years ago from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden (see New Snowden Leak Details NSA Collection Program.)

"The bill strengthens the FISA's (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's) privacy and civil liberties protections, while preserving essential authorities our intelligence and law enforcement professionals need to protect the nation," the administration statement says. "The bill would implement various reforms ... while maintaining [the government's authority] to conduct more targeted collection. It also enhances transparency by expanding the amount of information providers can disclose and requiring the government to increase its public reporting as well."

A number of industry and civil rights groups have endorsed the USA Freedom Act. A May 11 letter from a coalition of high-tech trade groups to House leaders called for passage of the USA Freedom Act, saying: "Public trust in the technology sector is critical, and that trust has declined measurably among both U.S. citizens and citizens of our foreign allies since the revelations regarding the U.S. surveillance programs began two years ago. As a result of increasing concern about the level of access the U.S. government has to user-generated data held by technology companies, many domestic and foreign users have turned to foreign technology providers while, simultaneously, foreign jurisdictions have implemented reactionary policies that threaten the fabric of the borderless Internet."

Just a First Step?

A week ago, a number of digital rights groups wrote to congressional leaders to voice their support for the USA Freedom Act. The letter points out that the legislation does not comprehensively address surveillance concerns, and calls for future action once the bill passes. "We need reform of the Patriot Act, not a rubber stamp extension of it and the misuses to which is has been put," says Harley Geiger, advocacy director and senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Though the House appears ready to vote on and approve the USA Freedom Act, what will happen in the Senate remains uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says he favors at least temporarily renewing Section 215. He defended the NSA's bulk collection program on the Senate floor last week shortly after the appellate court decision, saying that the terrorist attacks might not have occurred if such a law was in place in September 2001.

McConnell's fellow Kentuckian in the Senate, Republican Rand Paul, on the other hand, has threatened to filibuster legislation to renew the Patriot Act. "I'm going to lead the charge in the next couple of weeks as the Patriot Act comes forward," he said in a May 11 interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper. "We will be filibustering. We will be trying to stop it. We are not going to let them run over us. And we are going to demand amendments and we are going to make sure the American people know that some of us at least are opposed to unlawful searches."

'Enough Is Enough'

A number of senators took to the floor May 12 to oppose extending the Patriot Act, including Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who's the Senate sponsor of the USA Freedom Act.

"Should we allow the government to sweep up all of our credit card records?" he asked. "All of our banking or medical records? Our firearms or ammunition purchases? Or how about everything we have ever posted on Facebook, or everything we have ever searched for on Google? Who wants to tell their constituents that they support putting all of this information into government databases? Enough is enough."

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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