Representatives prove they aren’t done with surveillance reform

(Photo credit: Frédéric BISSON/Flickr)

On Monday, the USA FREEDOM Act passed, and while it’s a bill Sunlight and other reformers opposed for a variety of reasons, it — and the political drama around it — were clear signs that reform was necessary. To make that a little more specific, it wasn’t USA FREEDOM Act passing that was the biggest news; what mattered most was the stunning defeat of Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 2-month “clean” reauthorization (which was voted down the previous week), the actual sunset of three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (including Section 215) for a day, and then the failure of all three of his attempts to weaken with amendments to USA FREEDOM. Not a single one of those efforts mustered even a simple majority — and that’s in a chamber where it generally takes 60 votes to do anything.

No longer can people say the Senate is opposed to reform, or that short-term reauthorization is a likely outcome if we don’t simply accept the scraps we’re given. Reformers, and all of you who demanded more from Congress, called the bluff.

But it gets better: USA FREEDOM was never a stopping point, and — political inertia what it is — it will indeed be harder to move things through Congress that aren’t emergencies. To keep it going, we need courageous and determined leaders on this issue.

On Wednesday, we found out we have them.

A quick rundown: There was a vote on the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill in the House on Wednesday. Appropriations bills have much more flexible amendment processes, and also allow for a unique kind of legislation. On one hand, Congress generally can’t require the government to do something new under them, but on the other, it can defund activities that it may not otherwise be able to regulate.

So what happened? All four of the following amendments, championed by the named representatives and ample help from other dedicated offices, were passed. The following summaries are taken directly from the House’s write-up of which amendments were adopted:

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.: “The amendment prohibits funding for federal law enforcement to conduct non-court-ordered ‘stingray’ operations that collect bulk electronic data from individuals. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote.”

    More information on this is available here.

  • Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.: “The amendment prohibits funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to coordinate cryptography or computer security standards with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency CIA) except to improve information security. The amendment was adopted on a vote of 383-43.”

    We worked with Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., last year on a similar amendment; this is an important step toward rehabilitating NIST and its reputation.

  • Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas: “The amendment prohibits funding for certain queries under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act, and prohibits funds for the government to request that products or services support lawful electronic surveillance. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote.”

    This is a critical complementary effort to the Massie (and Grayson) NIST work: It prevents companies from installing backdoors in consumer products. In case you’re unfamiliar with this, look here for more information.

  • Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.: “The amendment prohibits funding for the DEA to engage in bulk data collection of telephone records. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote.”

    What great news! This is specifically tied to reports that the DEA was running a program very similar to the NSA’s under a different legal authority for 10 years before 9/11 or the PATRIOT Act (or Section 215 thereof).

It’s important to note that the appropriations amendment strategy isn’t foolproof. Last year, we saw all appropriation bills crammed together in the “cromnibus,” which resulted in one great amendment ripped out. (Indeed, it would have accomplished what Poe’s amendment did and more). Leadership, which is generally opposed to surveillance reform, has more influence on appropriations bills, and the Senate, of course, needs to pass the same amendments (and therefore usually must act on the House bill rather than start from scratch).

Still these are very significant steps forward, and it bodes very well for the many other appropriations fights coming up this summer.