Democratic Lawmaker: We Need Cyber Legislation Before NSA Reform

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif Cliff Owen/AP File Photo

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“High-level” discussions on surveillance overhaul aren’t taking place, Rep. Adam Schiff said.

Congress likely needs to pass cybersecurity legislation before it can pave the way to addressing the National Security Agency bulk collection of American phone records, despite the looming June expiration of a key surveillance authority, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee says.

And "high-level" conversations about NSA reform, said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, aren't even happening yet.

"We're going to have to acknowledge that those who don't support any kind of cyber bill in advance of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] reform are probably not going to be satisfied," Schiff said last week after speaking about surveillance at an event hosted by the centrist group Third Way. "Because the timetable does not [make] that likely. Unless the information-sharing bill runs into unexpected roadblocks and gets pushed until after the summer, it's likely that's going to have to go first."

Schiff, who favors NSA reform, said information sharing was not necessarily a "prerequisite" for dealing with surveillance, but he believes it would be an easier sell than the inverse option. His comments nonetheless are likely to irk some in the privacy community who insist they cannot back any information sharing—which they fear might embolden more government snooping—before Congress overhauls the intelligence community's mass surveillance powers.

"I can see why people might want to use one as a lever for the other, but i think the sunset is all the lever we need," Schiff said.

The House Intelligence Committee likely will introduce an information-sharing proposal this week, and Schiff said it will be "fairly similar" to the measure passed 14-1 out of the Senate Intelligence Committee this month. Only Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregona vocal privacy advocate, voted against the bill, calling it a "surveillance bill by another name."

The White House and lawmakers from both parties have targeted information sharing as a top priority this year, as the urgency to shore up the nation's cyberdefenses has intensified in the wake of a series of recent high-profile hacks, like the one that hit Sony Pictures around Thanksgiving.

Under the Senate proposal, companies would be given some liability protections to voluntarily share certain digital data with the Homeland Security Department, as long as efforts were taken to scrub personal information from being transmitted. Such data swapping, the bill's backers say, would help the government and private sector more quickly detect, minimize response to, and potentially prevent cyber intrusions.

But civil-liberties groups have said the bill, even with a spate of privacy amendments tacked on, could bolster government surveillance. One concern many have is that the measure calls for the rapid sharing of data that DHS ingests with other federal agencies, including the NSA.

Schiff said that the so-called "insta-sharing" schematic was a "necessary part" of any information-sharing bill, indicating substantive changes would not be made to the provision in the House Intelligence Committee's bill. He said that deviations from the Senate bill would largely involve clarifying language that more clearly conveys what the bill intends and would not leave the door open to loose interpretations that could be used for surveillance purposes.

The White House has yet to say whether they will back the legislation being pushed by the intelligence committees—previous versions of which President Obama has threatened to veto. Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has introduced his own information-sharing bill which aligns closely with a proposal offered by the administration.

But as negotiations remain unfinished on information-sharing, Schiff had a blunt assessment of NSA reform's standing on the list of priorities for House leadership: virtually nonexistent.

"I regret to say that at the high-level not much is going on behind the scenes, because other priorities have sucked the oxygen out of the room," he said at the Third Way event. "In this area, like so many others, we will probably operate under the panic of the clock as we tick down to the expiration."

Section 215 of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which provides much of the NSA's authority for collecting bulk U.S. call data, will sunset June 1 unless Congress acts. A bill to reform the program—exposed publicly by Edward Snowden two years ago—and require more oversight and transparency on NSA spying passed the House in May, though not before 11th-hour changes prompted many tech companies and privacy groups to drop their support.

A more far-reaching version of the bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, fell two votes short of advancing in the Senate in November, as it failed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Lawmakers in both chambers have vowed to reintroduce the measure this Congress, but that has yet to happen.