WASHINGTON — In an overwhelming vote, the House moved the U.S. closer to ending the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records Thursday, the most significant demonstration to date of leaker Edward Snowden’s impact on the debate over privacy versus security.
But the final version of the legislation, “watered down” in the words of one supporter, also showed the limits of that impact. The bill was severely weakened to mollify U.S. intelligence agencies, which insisted that the surveillance programs that shocked many Americans are a critical bulwark against terror plots.
The bill was approved 303-121, which means that most House members can now say they voted to end what many critics consider the most troubling practice Snowden disclosed — the collection and storage of U.S. calling data by the secretive intelligence agency.
But almost no other major provision designed to restrict NSA surveillance, including limits on the secret court that grants warrants to search the data, survived the negotiations to get the bill to the House floor.
And even the prohibition on bulk collection of Americans’ communications records has been called into question by some activists who say a last-minute change in wording diminished what was sold as a ban.
“People will say, ‘We did something, and isn’t something enough,”’ said Steven Aftergood, who tracks intelligence issues for the Federation of American Scientists. “But this bill doesn’t fundamentally resolve the uncertainties that generated the whole controversy.”
Though some privacy activists continued to back the bill, others withdrew support, as did technology companies such as Google and Facebook.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “I believe this is a workable compromise that protects the core function of a counterterrorism program we know has saved lives around the world.”