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House Judiciary Committee Passes Bill To Limit NSA Spying


Edward Snowden's disclosures may achieve their intended effect. It's been two years since the former NSA contractor leaked details of U.S. surveillance programs. Among other things, he revealed the agency collects and stores Americans' phone records. Well, today the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee approved a revision to the Patriot Act - it would end the bulk collection of those records. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: A lot of lawmakers, along with many of their constituents, hit the roof when they first learned the NSA had for years been scooping up people's phone records and holding onto them for five years. Much of that anger is still palpable today.


CONGRESSMAN JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Right now as we speak, the NSA is collecting data on every call made to and from every American.

WELNA: That's Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner. He chaired the House Judiciary Committee when it passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Sensenbrenner himself wrote much of that landmark expansion of government surveillance powers, so he says he knows what it was meant and what it was not meant to do.


SENSENBRENNER: I can say in no uncertain terms that Congress did not intend to allow the bulk collection of Americans' records. The government's over-broad collection is based on a blatant misreading of the law.

WELNA: Sensenbrenner is the main sponsor of the committee's revision of the Patriot Act, a bill that's labeled the U.S.A. Freedom Act. It specifically bans any more bulk collection of phone data. Phone companies would retain the records. And while spy agencies could still examine them, their requests would have to be very specifically targeted and would need a warrant from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA Court. New York Democrat Jerry Nadler pointed to a another reform that allows civil liberties watchdogs in that court and forces it to publish any significant decisions.


CONGRESSMAN JERRY NADLER: In the future if the government advances a similarly dubious legal claim, there will be an advocate at the FISA Court to oppose the claim and if the FISA court nonetheless approves the claim, the public will know about it almost immediately and the responsibility will lie with us to correct it just as quickly.

WELNA: But Texas Republican Ted Poe chided the bill's sponsors for doing nothing about another provision in the Patriot Act known as Section 702, which allows collection of the content of emails and other Internet communication without a warrant.


CONGRESSMAN TED POE: Under current law, the government can search the database on a fishing expedition and get those communications created under this program, including searching information about a U.S. citizen. This can be done without a warrant. That seems to violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution to me.

WELNA: But the bill's sponsors argued successfully that any attempt to change it would be opposed by House leadership. The House bill is competing with a measure backed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. It would simply extend the current law for another five years. Sensenbrenner said voting for that bill would be endorsing bulk collection.


SENSENBRENNER: Members who travel home to their districts who have to look their constituents in the eye and say, I believe that the government should collect all of your phone records.

WELNA: Congress has only about 10 legislative days left to resolve the bulk collection standoff. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.