One Small Step for NSA Reform, One Giant Leap for Congress
By Dan Froomkin
Exactly two years after journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras traveled to Hong Kong to meet an NSA whistleblower named Edward Snowden, Congress has finally brought itself to reform one surveillance program out of the multitude he revealed — a program so blatantly out of line that its end was a foregone conclusion as soon as it was exposed.
The USA Freedom Act passed the House in an overwhelming, bipartisan vote three weeks ago. After hardliner Republicans lost a prolonged game of legislative chicken, the Senate gave its approval Tuesday afternoon as well, by a 67 to 32 margin. The bill officially ends 14 years of unprecedented bulk collection of domestic phone records by the NSA, replacing it with a program that requires the government to make specific requests to the phone companies.
After Snowden’s leak of NSA documents revealed it, the program was repeatedly found to violate the law, first by legal experts and blue-ribbon panels, and just last month by a federal appellate court. Its rejection by Congress is hardly a radical act — it simply reasserts the meaning of the word “relevant” (the language of the statute) as distinct from “everything” (how the government interpreted
At the same time, the Freedom Act explicitly reauthorizes
– or, rather, reinstates, since they technically expired at midnight May 31 – other programs involving the collection of business records that the Bush and Obama administrations claimed were authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. In fact, even the bulk collection of phone records, which was abruptly wound down last week in anticipation of a possible expiration, may wind up again, because the Freedom Act calls allows it to continue for a six-month transition period.
And while the Freedom Act contains a few other modest reform
provisions – such as more disclosure and a public advocate for the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — it does absolutely nothing to restrain the vast majority of the intrusive surveillance revealed by Snowden.
It leaves untouched formerly secret programs the NSA says are authorized under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and that while ostensibly targeted at foreigners nonetheless collect vast amounts of American communications. It won’t in any way limit the agency’s mass surveillance of non-American communications.
As I wrote after Sunday night’s legislative action, which paved the way for Tuesday’s vote, this marks the end of a vast expansion in surveillance authorities that began almost immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks. Indeed, the Freedom Act represents the single greatest surveillance reform package since the 1970s.
But that’s a low bar.
After 14 years of rubber-stamping executive-branch requests for pretty much anything related to terrorism, Congress had an extraordinary moment of opportunity to pass genuine reform. The Snowden revelations had changed the public’s attitudes about government surveillance. And three provisions of the Patriot Act were set to expire.
The provisions did expire after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly failed to stampede the Senate into extending them as is.
Loathe to vindicate Snowden, McConnell and most of the Republican majority took a position even more extreme than that of the White House and the intelligence community, both of which had declared themselves satisfied with the modest changes in the defanged compromise legislation.
McConnell and other fearmongers issued dire warnings until the very end. “The Senate is voting to take away one more tool from those who defend this country every day,” he said Tuesday.
McConnell tried to get support for “some discrete and sensible improvements” to the Freedom Act on Tuesday, but failed. In one last stand before his final defeat, he refused to allow debate on several amendments that would have given the reforms more teeth.
President Obama wasted no time in announcing his plans:
Glad the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act. It protects civil liberties and our national security. I’ll sign it as soon as I get it.
— President Obama (@POTUS) June 2, 2015
(This post is from our blog: Unofficial Sources.)
Photo of Snowden appearing before a London audience on Tuesday/Amnesty International
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Post-Snowden NSA Reform, One Giant Leap for Congress appeared first on The Intercept.
June 2, 2015 at 11:08PM
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