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Editorial: Despite two new bills, true reform eludes the N.S.A.

By Editorial Board
On March 27, 2014

Earlier this week the House Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) unveiled a new NSA reform bill called The FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, which will serve as a rival bill to the USA Freedom Act proposed by the Obama Administration. Though both bi-partisan bills will marginally curtail the Orwellian NSA and its unconstitutional activities, there are stark differences between the two pieces of legislation, yet ultimately neither constitutes the type of reform needed to "restore the public's seat at the table of government," as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden said.
Both bills will ostensibly eliminate the NSA's ability to collect bulk meta-data, which as former NSA Technical Leader for Intelligence William Binney explained actually reveals far more about a targeted person than conversation content. They will also seek to increase the authority select bodies have over granting approval to NSA data-collection. Unfortunately, both of these pieces of reform fall far short of placing an adequate amount of accountability upon the NSA.
The USA Freedom Act, in spite of having Snowden's reserved approval, would merely transfer the duty of data storage from NSA facilities to private telecommunication corporations like Verizon, who would be required to keep a constantly updated trove of customer's private information on file for NSA requests. Additionally, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would remain the sole judicial body charged with authorizing the NSA's spying activities, which is a "secret court" whose hearings are closed to the public and the transcripts of each case are classified. NSA analyst Russel Tice has described FISC as a "kangaroo court with a rubber stamp," which poses serious questions about the degree of accountability, if any, the USA Freedom Act will impose on the NSA.
While the USA Freedom Act will at least have to be approved by the House Judiciary Committee - the typical protocol for bills - the HPSCI has decided to forgo approval from the House Judiciary Committee and merely vote on the legality of their own bill. As The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman illustrates, HPSCI's decision to unilaterally approve their own bill is indicative of "a subterranean and intense fight within the House about the future course of U.S. surveillance in the post-Edward Snowden era." This battle between state agencies revolves around the fact that HPSCI's bill does not require FISC to approve a request from the NSA before the NSA begins to collect meta-data, meaning the NSA can continue to spy on people with unencumbered impunity.
As you can see, neither bill contains the kind of reform that is desperately needed to bring US Intelligence agencies back into the realm of constitutional behavior. Though their very existence is indicative of progress, the fight for privacy does not end with either's ratification.


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