Two Bills Offer Different Visions of NSA Reform

Reconciling the measures could prove difficult if not impossible

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., June 13, 2013.

Two separate bills were introduced on Capitol Hill this week in response to the ongoing controversy stemming from revelations of mass domestic surveillance conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency. In both style and substance the two measures could hardly be more different.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) introduced a bill Tuesday with Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc), one of the architects of the Patriot Act a decade ago, titled the “USA Freedom Act.” The bill ends “bulk collection” of Americans’ communications records that had been authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, while introducing a number of safeguards and reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, which oversees the NSA’s surveillance activities. The measure claims the support of more than 100 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, plus heavyweight industry supporters like Facebook, Google, AOL, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Mozilla and others. Interest groups supporting the measure include both the ACLU and the NRA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing the NSA over its surveillance activities, is withholding judgment for the moment but EFF staff attorney Kurt Opsahl told TIME the Leahy bill is “definitely a step forward.”

On Thursday, NSA defenders launched their own volley, as the Senate Intelligence Committee approved the “FISA Improvements Act of 2013.” True to its name, the bill isn’t intended to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act so much as enshrine the NSA’s currently questionable practices into law while injecting some transparency into the process. The bill, sponsored by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and co-sponsored by Vice-Chairman Saxby Chambliss, includes modest reforms like stricter requirements for NSA reports to its overseers and a five-year limit on how long intelligence services can hold information gathered under Patriot Act-authorized surveillance.

Feinstein’s bill was made public after it was approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, though a spokesman said Feinstein has been describing the measures in the bill in op-eds and open testimony for months.

NSA critics are unimpressed by its reform measures. “It doesn’t stop the spying,” Opsahl said. “It will instead codify and extend the spying and that’s not recognizing the need for substantive reform.”

“This is not reform but an attempt to put a congressional stamp of approval on gross privacy violations. We will fight this bill for what it is — a way to make the worst abuses of the Patriot Act permanent,” ACLU attorney Michelle Richardson told Politico.

It’s not clear whether Leahy and Sensenbrenner’s bill will have the votes to get out of committee in the Senate or the House. Feinstein is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and another Democrat, Sheldon Whitehouse, has signaled opposition to canceling the NSA “bulk collection” program. One GOP committee member, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, sides with Leahy, as do some other committee Democrats.

If the two competing measures do end up going head to head on the floor of the Senate, reconciling them could prove a challenge.

“There are parts of Senator Leahy’s bill that are fundamentally at odds with Senator Feinstein’s bill, especially with respect to the business records program,” which deals with compelling business to supply information to intelligence agencies, a Senate aide familiar with the matter told TIME.

Both offices issued public statements professing their eagerness to review each other’s legislation but it’s unclear just where—or how—the two bills could find common ground.