On Wednesday of last week, the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2015 passed in the US House of Representatives. The bill, H.R. 4681, contains Section 309, which imposes guidelines for when the intelligence community can keep some communications collected under Executive Order 12333 (EO 12333). President Reagan wrote the policy document in the 1980s to provide the framework for intelligence agency conduct. Today, it is used to justify mass surveillance of communications.
Congress showed that it is willing to tackle the mass spying conducted under EO 12333 by inserting Section 309 into the bill. It’s one of the first times Congress has publicly stood up to spying covered by the Executive Order. It's a good sign, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The bill must usher in more vigilant—and public—Congressional oversight of EO 12333 and other NSA spying activities.
Unfortunately, the procedures in Section 309 reflect the current status quo: the over-collection, over-retention, and over-sharing of innocent users' communications. The procedures in Section 309 try to protect the communications of non-targets, but include massive loopholes. These loopholes do not grant any new authority, but they do allow the President to continue the egregious retention and sharing of innocent users' communication, which is a practice that must be stopped.
While the language in Section 309 was taken from the Senate Intelligence Authorization bill (.pdf), the House did not take time to debate it. We’ve learned over the past year that, at a minimum, both Congress and the public need time to read these intelligence bills and understand their implications. Yet again, this didn't happen. And yet again, the American public is left without a voice on the surveillance laws used to collect their communications.