Buried in a soon-to-pass government spending bill is a ban on the monitoring of any specific U.S. citizen's phone calls and online activities. The small, vague passage, however, leaves wiggle room for the National Security Agency to continue sweeping up Americans' call and Internet data en masse.
The fiscal 2014 funding legislation seems to underscore that the targeting of U.S. citizens is illegal. It does not endorse or object to the controversial "Prism" Web-tracking program or collections of call "metadata" detailing conversation durations, timestamps and other phone log details.
The issue of eavesdropping on a U.S. individual’s communications is personal for Senators and House members. As USA Today reported this week, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander, in a letter to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., denied spying on members of Congress but said the agency makes no promises that individual lawmakers have not had their call logs scooped up in broad dragnets.
According to the legislative text, the government cannot use any 2014 money to monitor online communications under the Internet surveillance program "for the purpose of targeting a United States person," and no funding can go toward looking at "the contents" of any calls of "a United States person" through the metadata program.
The House approved the measure late Wednesday and the Senate is expected to follow later this week.
President Obama on Friday morning is scheduled to address reforming NSA’s digital intercept efforts, following global debate over their value and privacy protections.
A White House-appointed review panel last month recommended NSA farm out collection activities to telecommunications carriers or a private entity.
House and Senate Appropriations Committee staff declined to comment for this story.
As a policy, NSA does not comment on congressional proposals until they are enacted, an agency spokeswoman said.