Following a pair of terror attacks in Canada this week, lawmakers in Congress are renewing their push to pass National Security Agency reform authorizing certain types of surveillance before the expiration of the PATRIOT Act next year.
The USA FREEDOM Act — sponsored by PATRIOT Act author and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner in the House and Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy in the Senate — reduces NSA’s current surveillance scope and ends the bulk storage of Americans’ telephone data by reinterpreting Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. (RELATED: Senate Unveils New NSA Reform Bill, Silicon Valley, Privacy Advocates Praise)
Section 215 also authorizes the FBI to collect business records the agency deems relevant to possible terrorist investigations without the standard probable cause requirement. (RELATED: The FBI’s Warrantless Electronic Surveillance Goes On Trial)
The House passed the FREEDOM Act earlier this year but the Senate version of the bill has stalled over the concerns of lawmakers, including Florida Republican and Senate Intelligence Committee member Marco Rubio, who believe the bill goes too far in limiting government surveillance powers necessary to maintain national security against growing threats like ISIS. (RELATED: Senators Claim Passing NSA Reform Could Help ISIS)
However, if lawmakers in the Senate don’t come to some kind of agreement before the end of this year’s legislative session — which will be interrupted by midterm elections next month — Section 215 will expire with the PATRIOT Act as a whole on June 1, taking all of the aforementioned surveillance authorization with it.
Citing a Sensenbrenner source “close to the veteran congressman,” Foreign Policy reports the Wisconsin Rep. is readying a new push for passage to guarantee certain state surveillance powers in the wake of increased Islamic extremist and terrorist activity in Iraq and Syria, and against the U.S.’s neighbor to the north.
“Something has to be done,” the source said in the report. “Absent significant reform, [the section] will not be reauthorized. The clock is ticking on that.”
“Senators obstructing passage of the USA Freedom Act risk losing Section 215 altogether,” Sensenbrenner said in a Guardian report earlier this month. “Section 215 sunsets next June, and given the administration’s staggering misinterpretation of the law, the House is highly unlikely to reauthorize it absent significant reforms.”
Silicon Valley and privacy advocates are divided over the bill, with the majority of the former supporting the privacy-focused reforms, and a portion of the latter stating the bill doesn’t go far enough. The Senate is similarly divided over the question of maintaining national security, and the bill has stalled with little time left on the 2014 congressional calendar.
“If you want to take away the ability to monitor ISIS, then you eliminate the tools that are eliminated in the Leahy bill,” Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last month in The Hill. “I can’t imagine anybody wanting to do that.”
“I’m always sensitive to protecting people’s privacy expectations and privacy rights, but I’m also concerned about eroding our capability to gather actionable intelligence that allows us to prevent attacks and take on our enemies,” Rubio said in the report, adding that Leahy’s bill would “absolutely” restrain NSA’s ability to track terrorists.