The USA FREEDOM Act is gaining steam in Washington. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the USA FREEDOM Act today with 77 co-sponsors in the House and 16 co-sponsors in the Senate.
The move comes in the wake of a major rally held this weekend to rein in unrestricted NSA surveillance on American citizens.
In July the Amash Amendment narrowly failed in the House. It would have stripped funding from the NSA program collecting telephone records of American citizens. The co-sponsors for the pending legislation, includes eight Members that voted against the Amash Amendment:
1. Rep. Jackson-Lee (D-TX)
2. Rep. Quigley (D-IL)
3. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA)
4. Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE)
5. Rep. Issa (R-CA)
6. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)
7. Rep. Long (R-MO)
8. Rep. Bera (D-CA)
If the 205 Members who voted for the Amash Amendment vote for the new very similar legislation also supported by Amash, then 213 Members would be above the bare majority that would have carried the Amash Amendment (in that vote 12 Members of Congress did not vote).
Obtaining these new co-sponsors who had voted against the Amendment is not entirely surprising. Specifically 13 Representatives who voted to stop the Patriot Act two years ago, voted against the Amash Amendment. Several Members have told the media that if they knew now what they knew then, then they would have voted for the Amash Amendment. At the time, Members of the Intelligence Committees and their staffs worked overtime to reassure them that these programs had significant safeguards to protect American citizens and that they could not and were not being abused. Members were even told that the mistake may be that the NSA doesn't do enough spying and that they overly err to protect civil liberties.
But when an internal NSA audit that had been withheld was published after the Amash Amendment, a number of Members were very displeased at having been misled by Members and staff that were sitting on documents that appeared to contradict what they were telling them. Specifically the NSA audit found 2776 incidents in just the Washington area, 1/10 of them are simply typographically errors. Of those typographical errors, the NSA accidentally accessed "a large number" of phone records for people with a 202 area code, which is the area code of congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices, think-tanks, and 501c4 groups including Tea Party groups and their staffs.
In another case a document from the Department of Justice on bulk data collection was apparently withheld from Congress when the cover letter stated: "We believe that making this document available to all Members of Congress, as we did with a similar document in 2009, is an effective way to inform the legislative debate about the reauthorization of Section 215."
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and current Chairman of the subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, who introduced the legislation today was also the original sponsor of the Patriot Act. Sensenbrenner has previously stated that the PATRIOT Act was "deliberately drafted to prevent [the] data mining" yet the NSA interpreted his legislation to justify their dragnet style surveillance of American citizens. His support, as the drafter of the PATRIOT Act, could be influential with a few of his national security oriented Republican colleagues.
While the bill is currently in draft, the key provisions include 1) ending "bulk collection of American's communication records," 2) "Reform[ing] the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," 3) "Increas[ing] transparency," and addresses "National Security Letters." You can read more about the pending legislation here.
In addition, Senator Leahy announced the support for the USA FREEDOM Act by a number of outside groups, including the National Rifle Association (NRA).
This legislation comes just days after the StopWatching.Us rally from this weekend which had thousands of participants (as disclosure I am a founding member of the StopWatching.Us coalition). Below is video of Representative Amash discussing his pending legislation at the rally:
Derek Khanna (@DerekKhanna and Facebook.com/derekkhanna) is the maverick former Republican staffer and civil liberties advocate whose op-eds on cell phone unlocking went viral in January. He is now a Yale Law Fellow, columnist, and policy expert, and leader in the campaign to legalize unlocking your cell.