A small group of Congressmen is trying to cut off the funding for the NSA’s widespread collection of phone and Internet records under the “business records” collection provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The provision in FISA that enables law enforcement agencies to get access to a large variety of things that can be deemed relevant to an intelligence investigation has been at the center of the controversy over the National Security Agency’s widespread secret collection of phone call metadata. The NSA relies on the FBI to serve orders to phone companies for the metadata–which includes information about the originating number of a call, the terminating number and length of the call–and the authorization for this process comes from section 501 of FISA, which gives the FBI the ability to apply for an order to get access to “business records.”
That section was revised by section 215, which gave the FBI much broader authority for what records it could get through those orders, including the phone metadata records. An amendment to the proposed defense appropriations bill would prohibit any funding authorized by the bill from being used for broad data collection operations. The amendment was introduced by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), but also has support from Democrats.
None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to collect tangible things (including telephone numbers dialed, telephone numbers of incoming calls, and the duration of calls) pursuant to an order under section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1861) if such things do not pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation described in such section,” the amendment says.
The proposed amendment, which also has the support of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and others, is the latest move by an increasingly angry and ornery Congress that has spent most of the summer holding hearings and grilling top law enforcement and intelligence community officials about the surveillance programs revealed by the leaks of classified documents by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor. Congressional leaders have questioned why the NSA needs access to such a broad set of records, ostensibly in order to identify terrorist activity.
In addition to the attempt to cut off funding for the data-collection program, Congress also has warned that section 215 of the PATRIOT Act may not be renewed when it’s due to expire in 2015.
“Section 215 expires at the end of 2015,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said in a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on July 17. “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew section 215.”
There is a vote scheduled on Wednesday in the House of Representatives on the appropriations bill, which may be an early indicator of how much support the Amash amendment has.
Image from Flickr photos of Mith Huang.