House Votes to End the Government’s Bulk Collection of Americans’ Phone Data

The House took a big step Wednesday toward ending the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone data, by passing legislation to stop this practice.

The vote happened nearly two years after Edward Snowden famously disclosed the NSA’s operation, a move that forced him to flee the country, but also forced the United States to debate over just how far the U.S. government should go to sniff out terrorists and terrorist plots.

In this file image made from video released by WikiLeaks on Oct. 11, 2013, former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden speaks in Moscow. Faced with congressional inaction to curtail the NSA?s bulk collection of Americans? telephone records, civil liberties groups are looking to cases already in the courts as a quicker way to clarify just what surveillance powers the government should have. Three appeals courts are hearing challenges to the National Security Agency phone records program, creating the potential for an eventual Supreme Court review. Judges in lower courts are grappling with the admissibility of evidence gained through the NSA?s warrantless surveillance. The flurry of activity follows revelations last year by former contractor Edward Snowden of once-secret intelligence collection programs. (AP Photo, File)
The domestic surveillance program uncovered by contractor Edward Snowden has split the nation over whether the NSA’s bulk collection on phone data goes too far against the privacy rights of Americans. But on Wednesday, the House easily voted to end this practice, and sent the bill to the Senate. Image: AP

The House easily passed the USA FREEDOM Act in a 338-88 vote that saw majorities of both parties vote in favor of the bill. The “no” votes came from 47 Republicans and 41 Democrats.

The vote took place just a week after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the USA PATRIOT Act does not allow the bulk collection of phone data, even though the NSA has interpreted Section 215 of that law to allow this activity.

It also happened just weeks before Section 215 will expire, and signals that Congress seems likely to reform that part of the law instead of simply extending it further.

One possible hurdle to passage in the Senate comes from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has indicated he supports a clean extension of Section 215. McConnell and many other members have said that despite the controversy surrounding the NSA practice, bulk collection is helping the U.S. track and apprehend terrorists.

Last year, similar House-passed legislation was not taken up in the Senate, due to opposition from Republicans.

But the easy House passage of the bill to end bulk collection could change those plans. Support from the Obama administration is also likely to help it along — the White House said Tuesday that it “strongly supports” the House bill.

In addition to ending bulk data collection, the bill prohibits the collection of other mass quantities of data — for example, collection by state or zip code. It also tightens up other surveillance processes to ensure that they are based on real dangers to national security.

It also includes several provisions aimed at ensuring privacy and civil liberties are respected at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) argued that reform is needed so that America can create a better balance between freedom and security.

“I made the pledge to my colleagues in Congress and to the American people that America’s liberty and America’s security can co-exist, that these fundamental concepts are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “They are embedded in the very fabric that makes this nation great and that makes this nation an example for the world.”

“The legislation before the House today … the USA FREEDOM Act, protects these pillars of American democracy,” he said.

Most Democrats clearly supported the bill as well, including Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

“With the passage of the USA Freedom Act today, the House will have done its part to enact historic and sweeping reforms to the government’s surveillance program and powers,” he said.