The fate of a bill that would end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records while preserving critical intelligence collection activities necessary to prevent another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil may now hinge on the Senate’s interpretation of three words: “specific selection term.”
In a hearing Thursday, Senate lawmakers debated the need for the USA Freedom Act, a bill passed last month by the House seeking to end NSA’s bulk data collection of telephone metadata in favor of requiring private telephone companies to store the data in a format that would allow NSA to conduct targeted, court-ordered searches. Although the House bill passed with significant bipartisan support, the Senate debate broke down largely along party lines, with most Republicans warning the proposed changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would inhibit NSA’s ability to identify terrorists before they can carryout attacks in the U.S.
“It seems to me that this bill is fixing a lot of things that simply aren’t broken,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“My phone data is in [the NSA database] with everybody else’s, but frankly I’m not worried and I’m not worried because I don’t talk to terrorists, and hopefully I’m not talking to other people who talk to terrorists,” he said.
But while Democrats and administration officials praised the bill for providing the necessary balance between the public’s demand for an end to warrantless bulk data collection and the intelligence community’s need to access data linked to a legitimate terrorist target, some key lawmakers and privacy advocates said the bill’s language remains too vague to prevent government overreach.
“The language used in the bill is somewhat controversial,” committee Chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said. “This controversy revolves around the requirement that the government focus its collection of information on what is called a specific selection term. The problem comes with the definition of a specific selection term, which is not clear on its face.”
When the bill passed the House Judiciary Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the phrase “specific selection term” was defined as “a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account.” But the definition was changed at the last minute before the full House took up the bill.
The definition included in the bill that passed defined a “specific selection term” as a “term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device, used by the Government to limit the scope of information or tangible things sought pursuant to the statute authorizing the provision of such information or tangible things to the Government.”
Privacy groups and major technology companies, such as Facebook and Google, quickly pulled their support, arguing the change of language had rendered the bill ineffective. They also argued the vague language in the bill could allow NSA analysts or other intelligence officials to indiscriminately search through vast datasets, such as entire zip codes.
Senior administration and intelligence officials, however, argued that is not the case and urged the Senate to back the bill. It would not only end bulk data collection under Section 215 of FISA, but the bill would also end bulk collection under National Security Letter statutes and the pen register/trap and trace provisions of FISA, said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.
“While I have heard people say it would allow the government to seek all of the phone records for a particular zip code, that is not the case,” Cole said. “That would be the type of indiscriminate bulk collection that this bill is designed to end. We think the definition that’s in the bill works,” he said. “We’re happy with the language that’s there.”