The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to approve a measure that would, among other things, end the mass collection of Americans’ phone data.
The USA Freedom Act extends many parts of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, which expires June 1. The measure’s fate in the Senate is less likely. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr introduced S. 1035, a bill that would extend the current language of Patriot Act Section 215 through 2020, thereby continuing the mass spying rubber-stamped by the FISA Court.
“Despite changes to the NSA bulk telephone metadata program announced by President Obama last year,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, “the bulk collection of the records has not ceased, and will not cease, unless and until Congress acts to shut it down.”
Wednesday’s vote comes nearly two years after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the U.S. government’s secret program to collect and store huge amounts of data from millions of Americans’ phone records.
Just last week, that program was ruled illegal by a federal appeals court that said if Congress wants to “authorize such a far?reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, and to do so unambiguously.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in ACLU v. Clapper has determined that the NSA’s telephone records program went far beyond what Congress authorized when it passed Section 215 of the Patriot Act in 2001.
The court unequivocally rejected the government’s secret reinterpretation of Section 215. Among many important findings, the court found that Section 215’s authorization of the collection of business records that are “relevant to an authorized investigation” could not be read to include the dragnet collection of telephone records.
The court also took issue with the fact that this strained application of the law was accomplished in secret and approved by the secret and one-sided Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court).
The House measure would extend the revised Patriot Act until Dec. 15, 2019. Last fall, the Senate failed to advance its own version of the Freedom USA Act.
The Senate hasn’t yet taken up a Patriot Act extension — and when it does, many expect the debate to be far more contentious than in the House, partly because Republican presidential candidates such as Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have been vocal about the Patriot Act. (Rubio supports an extension; Paul has threatened a filibuster.)
While the House’s measure would modify the phone records program, controversy also surrounds three main areas of the Patriot Act:
- Roving wiretaps: One authorization covers one person’s devices, computers, and phones.
- Easier access to records: Broad access covers everything from business documents to library records.
- “Lone wolf” provision: The traditional definition of an “agent of a foreign power” is changed to allow for surveillance of “any non-U.S. persons who engage in international terrorism or preparatory activities.”
The Patriot Act was last renewed in May 2011, when President Obama signed the extension just before a midnight deadline lapsed.
The National Security Agency eavesdropped on civil rights icon Martin Luther King and heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali as well as other leading critics of the Vietnam War in a secret program later deemed “disreputable,” revealed documents declassified in 2013.
The documents declassified in 2013 showed the NSA tracked King and his colleague Whitney Young, boxing star Ali, journalists from the New York Times and the Washington Post, and two members of Congress, Senator Frank Church of Idaho and Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.
US Attorney General Elliot Richardson shut down that program in 1973, just as the Nixon administration was engulfed in scandal.
The 1975 disclosure of the NSA program, along with other domestic spying on Americans, caused public outrage and one of the senators who had been tapped, Church, led reforms that created stricter limits on surveillance and spy agencies.
But the NSA has been overstepping its authority and flouting civil rights protections since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The agency carried out warrantless wiretapping between 2001-2004 and revelations from Snowden have exposed far-reaching electronic surveillance of phone records and Internet traffic.
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