NSA reform bill stalled with Congress headed toward fall recess

Members of Congress are set to leave Washington for an extended fall recess in a few days

The U.S. Congress is unlikely to pass legislation to end the National Security Agency's widespread collection of U.S. telephone records before leaving Washington, D.C., on a two-month break.

Congress is scheduled to leave town for its fall recess by the end of this week, with the USA Freedom Act still awaiting action in the Senate. Members of Congress will head back to their home districts to campaign for November's elections, with all members of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate on the ballot.

The USA Freedom Act, with significant support in the House and the Senate, still has some lawmakers questioning whether reining in the NSA's phone records collection program would hurt the U.S. government's war on terrorism.

Absent congressional action, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced late Friday that they have asked for, and received, court authorization to continue the telephone records collection program. The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reauthorized the program to continue until Dec. 5, with some limits proposed by President Barack Obama earlier this year.

It's important to "maintain the capabilities" of the telephone records program, "given that legislation has not yet been enacted," the two agencies said in a joint statement.

The House passed a watered-down version of the USA Freedom Act in May, but several senators have pushed for a pumped up version that they say would end the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records.

The Senate version of the bill has even won the support of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. But Congress has several other issues to deal with in coming days, including a continuing resolution to continue funding the government and a request from President Barack Obama to assist a fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] in the Middle East.

Earlier this month, just after Congress returned from its summer recess, four tech trade groups urged the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act.

Supporters of the bill said they're disappointed Congress hasn't passed the bill, but suggested it may still have life in a so-called lame duck session following November's election. Congress could also start over with a new bill after new members are seated in January.

This session of Congress is "our best chance for meaningful reform of some bulk collection authorities," said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Congress should "take up the bill immediately without weakening it," Geiger added. Supporters of NSA reforms need to contact Congress and demand a vote, he said.

The USA Freedom Act is "near the finish line" and has broad support in Congress and from a range of advocacy groups across the political spectrum, Geiger noted. It's not clear whether NSA reform will generate the same support in the next Congress, he said.

"We are really hoping Congress can finish its business this session and turn to other surveillance reform next session," he added.

The Software and Information Industry Association is "optimistic" the bill will come back in the lame duck session later this year, said David LeDuc, senior director of public policy at the trade group. "We still think there's sufficient support this Congress, and we think it's a good opportunity for members of Congress to go out on a win," he added.

Supporters of the USA Freedom Act will continue to push hard for passage, added Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, another IT trade group. "The Congress needs to step up, and the executive branch needs some congressional guidance on how to operate in this area," he said.

Supporters will continue to look for openings to pass the legislation, Black said. "It's hard to believe that at some point, it won't get done," he said. "It's too important not to deal with."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags Eric HolderU.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance CourtU.S. National Security AgencyJames ClapperU.S. CongressU.S. Office of the Director of National IntelligencelegislationBarack ObamaprivacySoftware and Information Industry AssociationEd BlacksecurityHarley GeigerDavid LeDucCenter for Democracy and TechnologygovernmentComputer and Communications Industry AssociationU.S. Department of Justice

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