After a tense battle over renewing key provisions of the Patriot Act, the US Senate passed the USA Freedom Act, a bill meant to limit the government’s surveillance apparatus. President Obama signed the bill last night.
The USA Freedom Act renews Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has been used (under dubious legal circumstance) to justify the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program. In renewing Section 215, the bill prohibits the NSA from using it to justify its bulk data collection program. The bill also declassifies major FISA court opinions, throwing an extra iota of sunshine on a shadowy corner of the legal system.
After Congress blew its deadline and Section 215 “sunsetted” this weekend, the Senate got serious about compromising, with hardcore Patriot Act supporter and former USA Freedom opponent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) flipping his vote, preferring to support legislation he didn’t like rather than see Section 215 go away completely. McConnell attempted to insert a few amendments into the USA Freedom Act to water it down, but none passed.
Still, the bill is seen as a big compromise for privacy activists, since the limits it places on surveillance don’t bring sweeping reform.
Privacy-minded groups weren’t uniformly supportive of the bill, with many concerned it didn’t go far enough. “This bill would make only incremental improvements, and at least one provision—the material-support provision—would represent a significant step backwards,” ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement while it went through Congress. “The disclosures of the last two years make clear that we need wholesale reform.”
And while supporters like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) voted for and praised the bill, there’s recognition that it’s an incremental victory at best. “The fight to protect Americans’ constitutional rights against government overreach is not over,” Wyden said in a statement. “I’m committed to plugging the backdoor search loophole that the government uses to review Americans’ communications without a warrant, to beat back efforts to build security weaknesses into our electronic devices and to require the government to get a warrant before tracking Americans’ movements electronically.”
This is a good step towards reform! The bill might seem like a strident win because of the Congressional strife it caused, but it’s important to remember that it’s just a tiny little baby step, and not any kind of blanket protection against continued intelligence overreach.