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Project on Government Oversight

Revised USA FREEDOM Act Lacks Transparency and Strong Special Advocate

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May 8, 2014

A weakened version of the USA Freedom Act unanimously passed through the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and reportedly was approved today by the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence—clearing the way for the bill to be debated on the House Floor.

But the bill omits critical government reporting requirements included in the original USA FREEDOM Act as introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).  

POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said: “We are deeply troubled that much-needed reforms to shine a light on surveillance activities were not considered by House Judiciary yesterday. We cannot expect this bill to protect privacy and civil liberties while the public and Congress continue to be in the dark about the policies in practice.”

OpenTheGovernment.org Executive Director Patrice McDermott said: “The revised USA Freedom Act omits some of the most crucial provisions of the original bill. We applaud the committees’ unanimous agreement that bulk collection must end. But given revelations that the government was using section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to justify actions that Congress did not intend to authorize, we cannot simply trust that the program has ended.”

The Constitution Project's Senior Counsel Katherine Stern said: “The bill also weakens the proposal for a civil liberties advocate at the secret FISC Court, providing only for a panel of advisors to be employed entirely at the Court’s discretion. We need an authentic advocate for the public with a mandate to represent us whenever the Court considers broad questions of rights." 

The original USA FREEDOM Act required public annual reports from the government that included the total or a good faith estimate of the number of individuals and U.S. persons included in various domestic surveillance activities. It also required public reports every six months on the total number of requests using National Security Letters. The revised version leaves out all of these reporting requirements—and leaves the American public without a reliable way to determine whether the National Security Agency (NSA) has access to their phone, e-mail, and other electronic records.

An amendment to allow for more reporting by private companies was passed by the committee. But McDermott says that is insufficient. “We must know how many Americans’ personal information is being stored and analyzed in the NSA’s databases, in order to verify that bulk collection has ended,” McDermott said.

Leahy expressed disappointment that the bill did not include “important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the FISA Court, and greater transparency.” He announced that he will continue to push for the missing reforms when his Senate Judiciary Committee considers the USA FREEDOM Act this summer.

Brian said, “We urge Congress to ensure the basic government transparency provisions included in the original bill are in any final surveillance reform legislation.”

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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