U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy is expected to introduce a version of the USA FREEDOM Act (UFA) tomorrow that is far stronger than what the enfeebled House of Representatives managed to pass earlier this year.
According to the New York Times, the bill not only curtails the bulk surveillance of American’s call metadata — the first NSA program detailed by the Edward Snowden leaks — but would also reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to include an opposition voice to the government’s arguments, and force some form of public disclosure of information regarding the court’s decisions.
It also contracts the terms that the government could use to request call metadata from telephone companies.
Given the Times’ summary, it doesn’t appear that the bill would close so-called “backdoor” searches of Americans’ communications. Backdoor searches have come under withering scrutiny due to the use of such techniques by several United States intelligence agencies.
The full text will be the real test, of course, but it does seem that what Leahy has put together is stronger than the bill that the house passed. That bill was infamously shoved through in a hurry, after being so weakened that around half of its original co-sponsors voted against it. What the House passed cannot be called reform.
The proposed Senate bill would at least close the door on the telephony metadata program, but it will be important to look into its ability to more broadly end bulk collection of data relating to the communications of American citizens. The NSA has a wide, diverse set of surveillance tools that range from demanding data from Internet companies through PRISM, to tapping the fiber cables that make up the Internet itself. Merely ending the NSA’s pooling of our call records is not enough — by far — when it comes to shuttering overly intrusive surveillance programs that we currently fund.
The Times’ dismount is worth a moment of meditation:
Over all, the bill represents a breakthrough in the struggle against the growth of government surveillance power. The Senate should pass it without further dilution, putting pressure on the House to do the same.
That’s a mildly sobering reminder that even if the Senate manages to pass something that would have material impact on the NSA, it would only have cleared one chamber. The Senate bill has been put together in collaboration with the executive branch, implying that friction in the House could be less than we might expect. I’ve heard that the House bill was drastically impacted by the current administration’s input. We’ll have to see.
Tomorrow is big day for potential reform. Strap in.