WASHINGTON — While members of Congress reveled in a rare show of bipartisanship Thursday as they approved legislation to dramatically change the federal government's beleaguered bulk data collection system, an influential chorus of critics warned the bill was little more than a watered-down feel-good exercise.
The 303-121 vote in the House of Representatives for the USA Freedom Act got lavish praise from key members of both political parties. Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., talked of a "sweet spot" between maintaining national security and protecting Americans' privacy, and a parade of politicians about to head home for a long Memorial Day recess agreed.
But just beneath the surface were serious concerns. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was disappointed the changes didn't go far enough.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had stronger feelings. "I am gravely concerned that the changes that have been made to the House version of this bill have watered it down so far that it fails to protect Americans from suspicion-less mass surveillance," he said.
Many legal watchdog groups agreed. "To call this a disappointment is an understatement." said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security program.
Nuala O'Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, found the bill "now offers only mild reform and goes against the overwhelming support for definitively ending bulk collection."
Lawmakers opposing the bill were largely a collection of libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats.
"This legislation still allows the government to collect everything they want against Americans — to treat Americans as suspects first and citizens second," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.
The bill would end the bulk collection of Americans' telephone and electronic communications under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Call-detail records can only be gathered on a case-by-case basis, and only after approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.