It’s not often that we get good news out of Congress, but the House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly for the USA Freedom Act, which would rescind some of the authority of the Patriot Act and set some important safeguards on surveillance (though it still doesn’t go far enough).
Congressmen voted overwhelmingly to ban the mass collection of American phone records on Wednesday, as the House of Representatives piled up pressure to reform the most domestically contentious National Security Agency program revealed by Edward Snowden.
Two years after the former NSA contractor first revealed the controversial “bulk collection” program in the Guardian, the 338-88 vote in favour of the USA Freedom Act marks the second time the House has voted for an alternative system restricting government agencies to more targeted surveillance.
But this time, reformers are growing more confident of also convincing the Senate to back the legislation after strong support in recent days from the White House, intelligence agency leaders and a US federal appeals court – even as major civil libertarian groups have decried the bill as insufficient reform.
With just six working days left for Congress to re-authorise a controversial expiring portion of the 2001 Patriot Act that the NSA has used since 2006 to justify the program, Senate Republican leaders have insisted the bulk domestic surveillance should be renewed in its current form but conceded they may not have the votes to do so.
“I don’t know if that can get 60 over here,” South Dakota senator John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, told the Guardian on Wednesday, referring to the number of votes required to pass a re-authorisation of the Patriot Act’s Section 215, including the bulk phone records collection. He added that there may be a process that will allow for votes on “several different proposals”.
Section 215, the portion of the Patriot Act that has been used to legally justify some of the most intrusive forms of government surveillance, including the mass data mining of cell phone metadata of all Americans, expires next week. The USA Freedom Act would limit that by requiring that such data be kept by the cell phone companies and forcing the government to get a court order to access the information of specific people rather than collecting and storing it all themselves.
Interestingly, the numbers were split pretty much even between the two parties. Republicans voted 196-47 in favor of the bill; Democrats voted 142-41. Those who voted against it included both some of the most conservative members of the House and some of the most liberal. Civil liberties groups are likewise split on it, some supporting it and some refusing to do so because it doesn’t go far enough. I’d say support it, simply because it’s the only limitations that have any chance of passing.
If it does pass the Senate, will Obama sign it? That’s an open question. After being a staunch critic of the surveillance state as a senator, he’s been George Bush 2: Electric Boogaloo as president, defending some outrageous violations of the 4th Amendment with fervor both in public and in court.