The Senate Advances NSA Surveillance Reform Legislation As Deadline Approaches

In a rare Sunday session ,the Senate voted 77-to-17 to take up the USA Freedom Act, a bill already passed in the House that would reform the NSA.

The procedural vote came just hours before key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire at midnight. It will likely take until the middle of the week for the Senate to pass the House bill, meaning several programs under the bill will temporarily lapse.

Among the expiring provisions is Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has been applied to allow the controversial bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. It was one of the first programs reported by The Guardian after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents about American surveillance processes.

Although privacy advocates and many in tech supported allowing Section 215 to expire, the surveillance reform bill did receive the support of many tech companies. President Barack Obama has also committed to signing the bill into law.

Passage of the bill would mark the first time lawmakers have reined in the surveillance powers of the intelligence community in the two years since Snowden first revealed the controversial intelligence-gathering programs.

Over the weeks leading up to the deadline, lawmakers have grappled with protecting Americans’ civil liberties while upholding the nation’s counterterrorism programs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led a push to extend the programs, but the Senate blocked his attempt.

After leading opposition against the Freedom Act in 2014 and again last week, McConnell voted on Sunday evening to advance discussion of the bill. He encouraged other members of his party to support the bill so that the surveillance programs would not expire.

McConnell also attempted to temporarily extend two lesser-known Patriot Act provisions expiring tomorrow that involve roving wiretaps and tracking “lone wolf” terrorist suspects. Paul objected to that vote.

Under the Freedom Act, the phone companies, not government agencies, would hold American phone records. The NSA could only access these records after receiving permission from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

The Freedom Act does not go far enough in curtailing American surveillance practices. It only addresses the bulk collection of American phone records and does nothing to rein in many of the gross oversteps we have seen from the Snowden revelations. The American Civil Liberties Union does not formally support or oppose the bill, but when it passed the House, it said significant changes should be made to strengthen privacy rights.

“The Senate should not make the same mistake and instead remedy the bill’s many deficiencies, which have been criticized on both sides of the aisle,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, at the time.

The bill does not address the surveillance of non-Americans or the communications of U.S. citizens with people outside the country under FISA Section 702 or Executive Order 12333. But today’s vote remains a victory for the advocates that have been fighting for two years to limit the scope of the NSA’s surveillance.

A recent Pew survey found majority of Americans do not believe there are adequate limits on what telephone and Internet data the government can collect. Today was a step in the right direction, but the fight isn’t over.