House passes restraints on data collection

NSA phone records program would end

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WASHINGTON -- In a rare moment of bipartisan accord between the White House and Congress on a major national security issue, the House passed legislation Thursday that aims to end the National Security Agency's bulk phone records program that had prompted intense domestic debate over privacy and civil liberties.

But there were limits to any idea of a new season of comity in the capital. A Senate panel voted to let President Barack Obama create a plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and reduce military forces, even as the House passed a defense policy bill that would continue to bar the prison's closing and resisted the administration's proposed Pentagon spending cuts for personnel, weapons and benefits.

And while the Senate confirmed David J. Barron, Mr. Obama's choice for a federal appeals court vacancy in Boston, it did so solely with Democratic votes. His nomination had been buffeted by controversy over his authorship of Justice Department memos on the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen.

Before leaving town for the Memorial Day break, the House overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act, which aims to restrict the government's ability to collect records about Americans in bulk. The bill was overhauled in negotiations with the administration this week, and House leaders allowed no amendments, leaving some civil liberties groups to say efforts at reform had been weakened.

The GOP-controlled House then approved this year's version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. Both bills are heading to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the Armed Services Committee voted 25-1 on its own version of the authorization act in the early afternoon.

The Senate bill, unlike the House version, makes some of the tough budget choices the White House pushed to cope with stringent spending caps already adopted by Congress: smaller pay raises, lower housing benefits, higher co-payments on pharmaceuticals, and weapons-systems cuts for Navy cruisers, Army helicopters and Air Force surveillance programs.

The Senate bill includes a plan to let the Guantanamo military prison be closed, an action Mr. Obama has urged. The legislation would permit the closing once the president provided Congress with a plan that worked through security and legal issues related to any transfer of remaining detainees to U.S. soil, said Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Mr. Levin called the provision "a path to close Guantanamo." Congress could vote to disallow the plan, but Mr. Obama could veto that disapproval, meaning foes would have to muster a two-thirds majority to override the veto and keep the prison open.

But it was unclear whether the provision would survive the legislative process, which will eventually include reconciling the bill's Senate and House versions. Last year, the Senate tried to ease a statutory ban on bringing Guantanamo detainees to a prison on domestic soil, but the proposed change eventually fell away.

Still, the House's 303-121 vote on the USA Freedom Act signaled that both parties were no longer comfortable with giving the NSA unfettered power to collect records in bulk on Americans.

The bill "really stands out to me as a very unusual example of Congress grappling with a very difficult policy issue, in which people have very strongly held views, and in which we managed to get to a very responsible compromise," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif. "That is a rare animal these days."

A year ago, a divided House nearly voted to strip all funds from the NSA for its bulk phone records program after leaks about its existence, but it fell short of a majority. This time, there was overwhelming support for the change.

"People are a lot more comfortable with a government that is not storing all this metadata," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. "On this issue, the administration, their position and the position of House Republicans frankly was pretty close."

Administration officials, led by Robert S. Litt, general counsel for the director of national intelligence, negotiated a flurry of last-minute alterations with lawmakers, focusing on a change to how the bill purports to stop the government from collecting records about Americans in bulk for national security investigations. The bill requires requests for records to be tied to a "specific selection term."

Under a prior version, which both committees had unanimously passed with backing by a coalition of privacy and industry groups, that was defined as "a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity or account."

But Obama administration officials said, according to congressional aides, that the FBI worried that the definition would inadvertently block it from obtaining records for conventional investigations, such as obtaining records of all lodgers at a hotel when it did not know the name of its suspect yet. They persuaded lawmakers to change the definition of "specific selection term" to something that would "limit the scope" of the request in an undefined way.

The Obama administration insisted the change was not intended to weaken curbs on bulk collection. But industry and civil liberties groups dropped their support and urged the Senate to strengthen the bill. Advocates pleaded for patience.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., a critic of NSA surveillance, said the bill was the first time since passage of the 1978 law creating the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that Congress had rolled back significant parts of the surveillance apparatus.

"The NSA might still be watching us," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., "but now, we can be watching them."


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