The Senator Who Might Scuttle NSA Reform

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.

Without the backing of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, the USA Freedom Act will likely stall in the Senate, where last year it fell two votes short.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is not yet ready to support legislation that would curtail the National Security Agency’s surveillance authorities, meaning a major roadblock to post-Snowden spying reforms has yet to budge.

Despite weeks of negotiations involving his staff, the Iowa Republican said Tuesday he still has concerns about the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan package that would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Not until I have discussions with people on the Intelligence Committee,” Grassley said Tuesday when asked whether he might support the bill. When pressed on what reservations he still had, Grassley offered, “Just finding a balance between national security and privacy.”

Grassley’s reticence is significant. Without his backing, the USA Freedom Act will face an uphill battle in the Senate, where it fell two votes short of advancing last year amid a filibuster by the GOP. The lack of support is compounded by the tight timeline lawmakers are working with: On June 1, core provisions of the Patriot Act are due to sunset, including a section the NSA uses to justify its domestic phone dragnet. The Freedom Act would reauthorize those provisions, albeit amended with new limitations and privacy protections in place, and many of the bill’s boosters concede its passage is highly unlikely after that deadline.

Grassley’s support is considered so vital that lawmakers working on the bill called an audible last week when it appeared he was not ready to sign on. The original game plan called for bicameral introduction of the measure last Tuesday, but that was dropped due in large part to Grassley’s staff still holding reservations.

Now, an influential bipartisan cohort of House lawmakers is expected to reintroduce the Freedom Act on Wednesday, with plans to pass it through the House Judiciary Committee as soon as Thursday. A vote on the House floor could come as soon as next week.

But all the lightning-fast movement will be for naught if the Senate again stands in the way of reform. The House strategy, however, is intended to net a lopsided victory in order to apply more pressure on Grassley and his Republican colleagues, who have expressed concerns that limiting surveillance could bolster terrorist organizations like ISIS.

Grassley’s deference to the Senate Intelligence Committee does not slam the door shut on the possibility that he may come around on the Freedom Act, but it is unlikely to give NSA critics much reassurance. Sen. Richard Burr, the panel’s chairman, has been a forceful defender of the intelligence agency’s spying operations.

A privacy advocate involved in negotiations over the bill told National Journal last week it was “not impossible” that Grassley may sign on as a cosponsor of the Freedom Act—though the advocate cautioned that this scenario seemed increasingly unlikely.

But reformers are not giving up on Grassley as a potential ally in their final push to limit the NSA’s spying powers—though with time running out, they may soon be forced to plow ahead without him.

Congress can no longer punt on an issue of utmost importance to Americans’ privacy rights,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a key architect of the Freedom Act, said in a statement. “This is an opportunity for Congress to end bulk collection under Section 215 once and for all, and I will continue to work with a broad bipartisan and bicameral coalition to accomplish that goal.”

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