NSA Reform Stalls, Rand Paul Votes No

The defeat marks an abrupt setback for the post-Snowden movement to rein in U.S. spying practices.

The new NSA Data Center on October 8, 2013 in Bluffdale, Utah.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Nov. 18, 2014, 2:43 p.m.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans blocked le­gis­la­tion Tues­day that would lim­it the gov­ern­ment’s sweep­ing do­mest­ic spy­ing powers, deal­ing a massive blow to the post-Snowden ef­forts to re­form the U.S. sur­veil­lance state.

At a fi­nal vote of 58 to 42, nearly every Demo­crat and four Re­pub­lic­ans voted for the bill, the USA Free­dom Act, but it failed to clear the 60-vote threshold ne­ces­sary to move for­ward in the up­per cham­ber. Its de­feat al­most cer­tainly means that any re­forms to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency will have to wait un­til next year, when Re­pub­lic­ans take over the Sen­ate.

The Free­dom Act, which first emerged in Con­gress in the months fol­low­ing former NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden’s leaks last sum­mer, was widely sup­por­ted by the tech in­dustry, pri­vacy and civil-liber­ties ad­voc­ates, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and even seni­or mem­bers of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity.

But with the coun­try en­gaged in mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions with the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia, a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans ral­lied against the Free­dom Act. Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, and oth­ers sug­ges­ted the bill could make Amer­ic­ans more vul­ner­able to ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Sen. Rand Paul, who has long cri­ti­cized the NSA, also voted against the meas­ure. Last week, Paul’s of­fice said the Ken­tucki­an would op­pose the meas­ure be­cause it does not go far enough and would re­new a por­tion of the post-9/11 USA Pat­ri­ot Act, which grants the gov­ern­ment ex­pans­ive spy­ing powers. Back­ers of the Free­dom Act saw Paul as a cru­cial and ne­ces­sary ally to punch the bill through the Sen­ate.

In a state­ment is­sued after the vote, Paul touted his role in pre­vent­ing the bill’s pas­sage.

“Today’s vote to op­pose fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion of the Pat­ri­ot Act ex­ten­sion proves that we are one step closer to restor­ing civil liber­ties in Amer­ica,” Paul said.

The meas­ure did earn some Re­pub­lic­an sup­port, from Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Dean Heller, and Lisa Murkowski. Cruz in re­cent weeks had be­come more vo­cal in his cri­ti­cisms of the NSA, which he said has ac­ted with dis­reg­ard of the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Sen. Bill Nel­son of Flor­ida was the lone Demo­crat to vote down the bill.

The meas­ure, au­thored chiefly by Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy, would ef­fect­ively end the gov­ern­ment’s mass col­lec­tion of metadata—the num­bers and time stamps of phone calls but not their ac­tu­al con­tent. The once-secret prac­tice was the first pro­gram ex­posed by Snowden last sum­mer, which kicked off a tor­rent of dis­clos­ures re­veal­ing the size and scope of the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s broad sur­veil­lance au­thor­ity.

Un­der the bill, phone com­pan­ies such as Ve­r­i­zon would in­stead re­tain those re­cords, which in­tel­li­gence agen­cies could ob­tain only after be­ing gran­ted ap­prov­al from the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court. The bill would also ush­er in a host of ad­di­tion­al pri­vacy and trans­par­ency meas­ures, in­clud­ing a more pre­cise defin­i­tion of what can be con­sidered a sur­veil­lance tar­get.

The House passed its own ver­sion of the bill in May, but last-minute changes caused pri­vacy groups to drop their sup­port for the meas­ure.

The is­sue will have to re­sur­face next year be­cause core pro­vi­sions of the Pat­ri­ot Act are set to ex­pire in June. Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates will lobby for re­stric­tions on the NSA’s powers in any meas­ure to reau­thor­ize the con­tro­ver­sial law. But law­makers may ul­ti­mately back only lim­ited re­forms if the only oth­er op­tion is killing NSA au­thor­it­ies al­to­geth­er.

In Janu­ary, Obama an­nounced that his ad­min­is­tra­tion would re­form the way the NSA col­lects and stores tele­phone metadata of vir­tu­ally all Amer­ic­ans. The pres­id­ent also prom­ised fur­ther trans­par­ency meas­ures and said he wanted to re­store the na­tion’s trust in the gov­ern­ment’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

But Obama also said he could only do so when Con­gress sent him a bill that closely matched his re­com­men­ded changes.

Contributions by Brendan SassoSarah Mimms