Senate Passes Major NSA Reform Bill

The USA Freedom Act, which will restore but reform the expired Patriot Act’s spy authorities, earned final passage in the Senate Tuesday and was signed by the president.

A demonstrator dress as Us President Barack Obama is seen infront of the US Capitol during a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The disclosures of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency of US allies has caused an international uproar, with leaders in Europe and Latin America demanding an accounting from the United States.
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Lauren Fox, Sarah Mimms and Dustin Volz
June 2, 2015, 7:04 a.m.

After weeks of tense stan­doffs marked by the lapse of parts of the Pat­ri­ot Act, the Sen­ate on Tues­day eas­ily passed com­pre­hens­ive sur­veil­lance re­form, end­ing a chapter of high-stakes brink­man­ship on Cap­it­ol Hill that even­tu­ally con­cluded with law­makers tak­ing their first sig­ni­fic­ant step away from the post-9/11 na­tion­al se­cur­ity policies that have come to define two pres­id­en­cies.

Law­makers ap­proved 67-32 the House-passed USA Free­dom Act, which would re­store the three pro­vi­sions of the Pat­ri­ot Act that ex­pired June 1, but also ush­er in a num­ber of changes de­signed to bet­ter pro­tect pri­vacy and in­crease trans­par­ency of the gov­ern­ment’s sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions. It will also trans­ition to­ward an ef­fect­ive end to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s bulk col­lec­tion of U.S. call data.

The meas­ure was swiftly signed by Pres­id­ent Obama, who cheered its pas­sage on Twit­ter.

Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell failed in the end to con­vince his caucus to sup­port him on a last-ditch ef­fort to eke out even a small vic­tory in a con­ten­tious, months-long battle over gov­ern­ment spy­ing that has left a bruise on his young ten­ure at the helm of the up­per cham­ber.

(RE­LATED: Rand Paul Takes Cred­it for Ad­van­cing NSA Re­form Bill He Op­poses)

The Sen­ate earli­er re­jec­ted a host of amend­ments offered by Mc­Con­nell that were in­ten­ded to weak­en the le­gis­la­tion. Those pro­pos­als came only after the ma­jor­ity lead­er buckled un­der grow­ing pres­sure to al­low the re­form meas­ure—which he ini­tially whipped ag­gress­ively against—to go for­ward.

Be­fore the fi­nal vote, Mc­Con­nell made one last im­pas­sioned plea to his col­leagues, des­pite the bill’s vic­tory be­ing clear. Cast­ing blame on Obama, Mc­Con­nell said the U.S. would be more at risk of ter­ror­ist at­tacks after the bill’s pas­sage.

“While the pres­id­ent has in­flex­ibly clung to cam­paign prom­ises made in 2008, the threat of al-Qaida has meta­stas­ized around the world,” Mc­Con­nell said. Now was not the time, he said, to “take one more tool away.”

“We’re talk­ing about call-data re­cords,” he ad­ded, rais­ing his voice. “Nobody’s civil liber­ties are be­ing vi­ol­ated here.”

Oth­ers dis­agreed, in­clud­ing a wide-ran­ging chor­us of sup­port­ers—tech firms, pri­vacy ad­voc­ates, civil liber­tari­ans, and tea-party act­iv­ists—who viewed the Free­dom Act as a crit­ic­al step to­ward restor­ing rights lost in the rush to pro­tect se­cur­ity after the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And some, in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Sen. Rand Paul, said the le­gis­la­tion does not go far enough.

The Free­dom Act’s pas­sage is the cres­cendo of nearly two years of start-and-stop bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al work to pull back the gov­ern­ment’s post-9/11 sur­veil­lance powers that began shortly after the dis­clos­ures by former in­tel­li­gence con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden in June of 2013.

Most not­ably, the bill would end the NSA’s once-secret in­ter­pret­a­tion of Sec­tion 215 of the Pat­ri­ot Act to jus­ti­fy its bulk col­lec­tion of U.S. call metadata, the first and most con­tro­ver­sial of the pro­grams ex­posed by Snowden. In lieu of that mass-sur­veil­lance re­gime, the Free­dom Act calls for a trans­ition with­in 6 months to a sys­tem where phone com­pan­ies provide re­cords to gov­ern­ment spies on an as-needed, more-tar­geted basis after ju­di­cial ap­prov­al is ob­tained from the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Demo­crat on the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, called the Free­dom Act’s pas­sage an “his­tor­ic mo­ment” that amoun­ted to “the most sig­ni­fic­ant sur­veil­lance re­form in dec­ades.” The Ver­mont Demo­crat has been a main ar­chi­tect of the Free­dom Act from the be­gin­ning, twice see­ing the le­gis­la­tion fail be­fore the Sen­ate be­fore fi­nally see­ing it tri­umph on Tues­day.

Leahy was able to con­sist­ently hold vir­tu­ally all Demo­crats to­geth­er be­hind the re­form pack­age, as few wavered from sup­port­ing the bill. But though the Free­dom Act earned lop­sided bi­par­tis­an sup­port in the House, Re­pub­lic­an votes in the Sen­ate proved in­cred­ibly more dif­fi­cult to find.

Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Re­pub­lic­an and an­oth­er au­thor of the Free­dom Act, en­gaged in the highest-pro­file whip­ping op­er­a­tion of his ca­reer Tues­day, pa­cing on the Sen­ate floor just inches away from the run­ning vote tally with note­cards he’d sketched out of those who were with him already and those who might be con­vinced to join him in vot­ing down Mc­Con­nell’s amend­ments.

“I really en­joyed it,” Lee said. “I really en­joyed work­ing with Sen. Leahy and I’m really pas­sion­ate about this is­sue. There was no phase of this ex­er­cise that was easy, so every single vote that we got we worked really hard for.”

Lee ap­peared to be a much lar­ger pres­ence on the floor of the Sen­ate dur­ing the amend­ments votes than even Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn. The Sen­ate’s No. 2 Re­pub­lic­an had been ag­gress­ively whip­ping in fa­vor of Mc­Con­nell’s at­tempts to weak­en the bill for weeks, but after the first amend­ment went down on a sol­id 42-56 mar­gin, Cornyn ap­peared to take a step back.

“We killed him on that first one and he could see which way it was go­ing, so it di­min­ished after that,” one Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an who op­posed the amend­ments said. “But he has whipped ag­gress­ively at every stage of this. I just think he knew he was go­ing to lose.”

“This is only the be­gin­ning,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Ore­gon Demo­crat, said at a con­fer­ence after the fi­nal vote. “There is a lot more to do.”

The staunch civil-liber­ties ad­voc­ate said he hoped to seize the mo­mentum of the Free­dom Act’s pas­sage to move quickly on re­form­ing Sec­tion 702 of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act, which is up for re­new­al in 2017 and in­volves the mon­it­or­ing of some con­tent of In­ter­net com­mu­nic­a­tions.

(RE­LATED: Rand Paul Won’t Get Amend­ments on NSA Re­form Bill—But Mitch Mc­Con­nell Will)

Snowden, who is liv­ing in ex­ile in Rus­sia, weighed in on the le­gis­la­tion as fi­nal votes were un­der­way Tues­day dur­ing a live video-stream dis­cus­sion with Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al UK, call­ing its changes to Sec­tion 215—in ad­di­tion to a re­cent fed­er­al ap­peals court de­cision deem­ing the NSA pro­gram il­leg­al—”not enough.”

“It’s a first step, and it’s an im­port­ant step,” he ad­ded.

Mc­Con­nell re­len­ted earli­er this week to al­low­ing the Free­dom Act to go for­ward—but not be­fore he and Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Chair­man Richard Burr offered a hand­ful of amend­ments that they said would make the bill more work­able. But those ed­its im­me­di­ately promp­ted stiff res­ist­ance from the White House, the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, and pri­vacy ad­voc­ates, who un­an­im­ously called on the in­creas­ingly isol­ated ma­jor­ity lead­er to im­me­di­ately pass the Free­dom Act un­changed.

The writ­ing began to ap­pear on the wall for Mc­Con­nell’s amend­ments earli­er in the day, as Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Bar­rasso joined the House GOP’s morn­ing con­fer­ence meet­ing to brief them on the Sen­ate’s ac­tions on everything from a must-pass trans­port­a­tion bill to health care. The top­ic quickly turned to the Free­dom Act, however, with House mem­bers stat­ing they were not in­ter­ested in see­ing any “pois­on pill” amend­ments ad­ded to their bill.

Ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al mem­bers in the room, one of the bill’s ori­gin­al spon­sors, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner—who also au­thored the ori­gin­al Pat­ri­ot Act—led the dis­cus­sion, mak­ing it clear that Mc­Con­nell’s amend­ments would not be ac­cep­ted. Even Rep. Peter King, a GOP de­fense hawk from New York who sup­ports the changes Mc­Con­nell is try­ing to make, said it was time to let it go.

(RE­LATED: Who Killed the Pat­ri­ot Act?)

The Free­dom Act’s pas­sage amounts to the first ma­jor loss of Mc­Con­nell’s six-month stew­ard­ship over the Sen­ate as ma­jor­ity lead­er—a po­s­i­tion of power the Ken­tucky sen­at­or has long coveted.

When the ta­cit­urn strategist seized the reins of the cham­ber with the GOP takeover of the Sen­ate after last year’s elec­tion, he pledged to move away from the gov­ern­ing-by-crisis mod­el that has gripped Cap­it­ol Hill in re­cent years—but the Pat­ri­ot Act de­bate has been defined by a se­quence of dra­mat­ic stan­doffs re­mark­able even by Wash­ing­ton stand­ards.

Mc­Con­nell was sty­mied be­fore the Me­mori­al Day re­cess by Rand Paul, his fel­low Re­pub­lic­an from Ken­tucky who is us­ing his stiff op­pos­i­tion to gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance as a cent­ral plank—and fun­drais­ing ma­chine—of his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Paul, along with Demo­crat­ic Sens. Wyden and Mar­tin Hein­rich, blocked ef­forts by Mc­Con­nell to ex­tend the Pat­ri­ot Act dead­line even by one day, for­cing the Sen­ate to re­turn for a rare Sunday ses­sion this week to avoid go­ing over the cliff.

But Paul con­tin­ued to use the power af­forded to one sen­at­or to delay votes and force an ex­pir­a­tion, while many blamed Mc­Con­nell for wait­ing to take up con­sid­er­a­tion of the Free­dom Act un­til the last minute in or­der to use the clock to his ad­vant­age. 

This post has been up­dated.


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