Obama Signs USA Freedom Act, And That's One Small, Very Small, Victory For Civil Liberties
After parts of the Patriot Act expired Monday, Senate leaders scrambled to pass a reform bill that would bring those surveillance provisions back into law as well as amend one of the National Security Agency's most controversial powers. Hours after the measure passed 67-32, President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act Tuesday evening, which most importantly took away the NSA's authority to collect telephone records of millions of Americans. This is a monumental move and represents a major step in reforming post-9/11 surveillance legislation — not all of it, mind you, but at least one significant piece.
Per the reform bill, the government must now get a targeted warrants to collect phone records from telecom companies. The actions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which reviews those requests, will also be more transparent. But other Patriot Act provisions that expired, such as Section 215's "lone wolf" clause and roving wiretaps, will be reinstated.
The NSA's collection of telephone metadata was first brought to light in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who offered files to journalists that confirmed the existence of the government's widespread domestic surveillance program. The revelation sparked outrage among lawmakers and private citizens alike because of the blatant violation of privacy. For the NSA surveillance program to finally be put to rest is a pretty huge win.
It was a weeks-long showdown between national security proponents, who saw the Patriot Act as a necessary tool in fighting terrorism, and civil liberties advocates. The latter group included presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, who last month doled out a 10-hour filibuster on NSA surveillance and has based much of his campaign on protecting people's right to privacy. On Sunday, Paul commended the provisions' expiration, tweeting, "Thanks to your help provisions that allowed bulk collection on innocent American citizens have expired."
It's not hard to imagine Paul was part of the group Obama called out Tuesday evening after signing the bill. In a statement, the president praised the bill's passing but criticized those who created what he considered a "needless delay."
After a needless delay and inexcusable lapse in important national security authorities, my administration will work expeditiously to ensure our national security professionals again have the full set of vital tools they need to continue protecting the country.
In a statement, Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, praised the reform bill as a "milestone." But he warned that much of the government's surveillance powers remained intact and comprehensive reform was still needed to ensure the protection of Americans' civil liberties.
Its passage is an indication that Americans are no longer willing to give the intelligence agencies a blank check.
The USA Freedom Act is just one small victory in a much bigger war of technology and privacy. No one's saying they want the country to be open to terrorist attacks, but there has to be another way of ensuring national security without making any enemy out of your own people.