In a last-ditch post-midterm Hail Mary, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to get just one more
thing done before handing over to the Republicans. That thing, apparently – the single thing he thinks we as
Americans most need – is a renewal of the PATRIOT Act provision allowing mass phone data collection, bound up
in the watered-down USA FREEDOM Act. The Act promises to allow legislators to say that they have dealt with the problem of mass government surveillance. In truth, it doesn’t even come close, and may well do harm.
The key sticking point – and the reason why, among others, Sen. Rand Paul has come out against passing USA FREEDOM in the lame-duck session – is that it renews for two years Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which is one of the three main legal underpinnings for mass government surveillance. (It also renews Section 206, the Fourth Amendment-abusing “roving wiretaps” provision, which allows the government to wiretap multiple devices of a target who is not yet identified.) USA FREEDOM would constrain mass government surveillance of Americans, under this section of law, such that the US government would no longer hold the phone metadata of all Americans. Instead, phone companies would hold it, but would be required to hand it over to the government in a form that would permit mass analysis. It’s hard to say that that’s any better. Senator Leahy’s office, and civil liberties groups like EFF and ACLU, have made strenuous efforts to negotiate the strongest reforms that the White House will accept. As it turns out, what the White House will accept falls far short and comes at too high a price. Restore the Fourth, joined by the Campaign for Liberty and other civil liberties groups, are therefore opposing its passage.
Analyst Marcy Wheeler has identified many deficiencies and possible improvements that could be made to the bill as it currently stands. Without those improvements, it will be a worthless reform, done only for PR and to get renewal of the PATRIOT Act authorities that a Republican-controlled Senate might not agree to renew at President Obama’s request this coming June.
So, do we let the zombie USA FREEDOM Act eat our brains – by making us think that this is real reform – or do we
stand up for allowing Section 215 to actually sunset on schedule in June 2015?
The PATRIOT Act’s boosters claimed it would only ever be temporary, emergency post-9/11 legislation, and that
eventually, like the al-Qaeda threat itself, the need for it would pass away. Well, it’s half a generation later. It’s
time. Truthfully, it’s long past time.
Don’t let Harry Reid claim he really did anything to reform the NSA. And don’t let the press fall for the line that this
represents any dialing back of government mass surveillance. The actual sunset of Section 215 would do much
more to rein in surveillance than this bill would – hence Harry Reid’s Hail Mary.
Alex Marthews, National Chair