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House passes watered down NSA reform bill

The House on Thursday passed a watered down version of the USA Freedom Act, even though some privacy advocates say the amended version of the bill may no longer achieve its stated goal of curbing the National Security Agency's bulk data collection.

The new version of the Freedom Act, passed by a vote of 303 to 121, does still prohibit the government's direct bulk collection of phone metadata. Under the legislation, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) will have to approve any government requests for phone records data from telecommunications firms.

Still, even Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the sponsor of the Freedom Act, acknowledged on the House floor Thursday, "Perfect is rarely possible in politics, and this bill is no exception."

"Let me be clear, I wish this bill did more," the congressman continued. "To my colleagues who lament changes, I agree with you. To privacy groups who are upset about lost provisions, I share your disappointment... But this bill still deserves support. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Sensenbrenner said the bill was amended after "the administration insisted on broadening certain authorities and lessening certain restrictions," in order to preserve core operations of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. "The negotiations for this bill were intense, and we had to make compromises," he said.

The most controversial change to the legislation was the tweaked language defining who or what the NSA is allowed to monitor. The bill was altered to greatly expand that definition, privacy advocates argue.

An earlier version of the bill said that the government could compel telecoms to hand over metadata found with search terms "used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account." The amended bill leaves the list of potential search terms open-ended by adding the phrase "such as" -- it says NSA searches must be tied to "a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device."

"Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collection, but given the government's history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can't be relied on to protect our freedoms," the nonpartisan privacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a blog post.

Other groups such as the ACLU and the Center for Democracy and Technology warned against the watered down language.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said on the House floor, "This legislation still allows the government to collect everything they want against Americans."

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on the House floor that the legislation still clearly ends the bulk collection of metadata by the government.

Those who say otherwise, he said, "are trying to scare you by making you think there are monsters under the bed."

The initial legislation, he said, "set too high a standard for intelligence collection." He pointed out that the bill was amended in a bipartisan manner.

The White House put out a statement of support for the finalized bill, saying the legislation "ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation, while further ensuring that individuals' privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed."

Before the bill becomes law, it must also be approved by the Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., joined Sensenbrenner in drafting the Freedom Act, and on Wednesday, he expressed concern about its latest iteration.

"I am glad the House is poised to act on a revised version of the USA Freedom Act," he said. "However, I remain concerned that some important reforms were removed."

If Congress doesn't pass legislation to authorize a new, reformed version of the NSA metadata collection program -- which is authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act -- it could disappear all together by June 2015 because of a "sunset provision" in the Patriot Act.