Senate Sinks NSA Reform

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The Senate voted 58 to 42 against brining the USA FREEDOM Act to the floor for amendments and passage Tuesday night, marking the end of any chance for National Security Agency surveillance reform this Congress.

Tuesday night’s vote to invoke cloture and proceed to a vote for passage failed to acquire the 60 votes needed, with all but one Democrat voting in favor of the bill along with Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Dean Heller of Nevada.

In the final hours prior to the vote, Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell amped up their warnings of the bill’s potential to curb national security efforts against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs. The threat from ISIL is real,” McConnell said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s different from what we’ve faced before. And if we’re going to overcome it — if our aim is to degrade and destroy ISIL, as the president has said — then that’s going to require smart policies and firm determination.” (RELATED: Mitch McConnell Tells Republicans To Vote Against NSA Reform Tuesday)

“I promise you, if God forbid a horrifying event like that would happen, the first question that would be asked is why didn’t we know about it?” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said during the brief floor debate that preceded the vote.

“Why would we weaken the ability of our intelligence community at a time when the threats against this country have never been greater?” Maine Republican Susan Collins asked.

After the vote was decided, Democratic Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy — the bill’s chief sponsor in the upper chamber — decried the “scare tactics” used by Republicans to squash the strongest measure yet aimed at reducing the size and scope of bulk surveillance of Americans revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden more than one year ago.

“Fomenting fear stifles debate, and doing it at the last minute is all the more regrettable,” Leahy said. “This nation should not allow its liberty to be set aside by passing fear.”

“If we do not protect the Constitution, we do not deserve to be in this body.”

The White House also endorsed the bill, which aside from curtailing surveillance powers, reauthorized such powers that were originally expanded via the PATRIOT Act for an additional two years. Without passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, Republicans set to control the chamber starting next year will have until June 1 to come up with a plan of their own before the PATRIOT Act expires entirely, along with all of the expanded authority within.

The USA FREEDOM Act would have ended NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records and storage, moved such records into the hands of service providers, and forced the agency to obtain specific warrants to search the data. Additional provisions required the signals intelligence agency to implement specific terms into search requests — this is in contrast to the House bill passed earlier this year, which some argued made it easier for NSA to conduct bulk searches for anyone falling under generic information like ZIP codes. (RELATED: NSA Reform Bill Could Allow The Agency To Spy On More Phone Calls)

The bill also added privacy and civil liberties advocates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves secret government warrants for searches.

Further transparency measures gave service providers and tech companies more freedom in reporting the number and type of government requests for data they must facilitate, and mandated that the government reveal the number of people swept up in searches — particularly if they’re American citizens.

Lawmakers in favor of even stronger reforms including Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul criticized the bill’s failure to address surveillance authority granted to the government under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows NSA to collect the electronic communications of non-citizens outside the U.S., but often sweeps up and stores Americans’ communications in the process.

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Giuseppe Macri