Well, the rapturous joy that recently liberated American phone call enthusiasts have exuded will now be quelled after a rousing 48-hour celebration in the streets of major U.S. cities everywhere. The Mardi Gras-level celebration quickly subsided as individuals began shouting from the rooftops last night, “Hang up your phones! The Freedom Act is coming, the Freedom Act is coming!” Okay, maybe I just fell asleep last night with CNN on the TV, but the symbolic end of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying authorization, albeit short-lived, highlighted one of the more dramatic legislative showdowns in recent memory. After the failure of Sunday’s emergency session in the Senate to reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act ahead of its 12am Monday expiration, the Republican-controlled Senate reluctantly passed the NSA reform bill, the unamended USA Freedom Act by a 67-32 vote on Tuesday. President Obama signed the bill into law shortly thereafter. The law will place additional restrictions on the NSA’s bulk-data collection; however it will keep the program as a centerpiece of the agency’s security efforts. The NSA officially halted it bulk collection program at 8:00pm on Sunday. It is not yet known when the program will be re-launched in its new incarnation, however language contained in the USA Freedom Act will keep the old system in place for up to six months before the new restrictions are put in place. President Obama vowed to get the program back running as soon as possible.
Tuesday’s actions put a capstone on one of the most furious legislative battles in recent time, especially within Republican ranks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) found himself pitted against (former) friend, Kentucky junior Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul, whose efforts, including a 10-hour floor filibuster, blocked the reauthorization of Section 215 twice before McConnell reluctantly accepted the imminent passage of the USA Freedom Act. McConnell had championed the unamended renewal of Section 215 until 2020 since April, despite a strong bipartisan consensus in support of the reform bill. In the end, all three amendments that McConnell proposed were shot down, ending a very disappointing spring for the Majority Leader. Had any of the amendments passed, they would have to be approved by the House of Representatives, a move that senior House members warned would be challenging at best. McConnell responded to the bill’s final passage saying that “It surely undermines American security by taking one more tool from our war fighters, in my view, at exactly the wrong time.” Paul, who opposed both section 215 and the USA Freedom Act, is now the Republicans’ persona non-grata, however gaining bipartisan support for his civil liberties-based campaign and inadvertently giving Obama and Democrats a major victory in the process.
Even in defeat, McConnell’s final statement may carry some level of resonance. The new law comes immediately after a test of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) failed to discover 67 of 70 undercover agents carrying fake explosives through airport checkpoints. It also comes as terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula have increasingly made calls for “lone wolf” attacks on western nations. Senators Lindsay Graham, (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) have all criticized creating restrictions in the face of these threats. Others like Patriot Act co-author and USA Freedom Act’s lead sponsor, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), said reforms will “rein in the dragnet collection of data,” and “increase transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” the NSA-spying program’s judicial oversight. The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) legal director, Jamaal Jaffer doesn’t think the USA Freedom Act is restrictive enough saying, “The passage of the bill is an indication that comprehensive reform is possible, but it is not comprehensive reform in itself.” President Obama has supported the USA Freedom Act’s reforms; however, he has stressed his strong desire to keep some kind of NSA surveillance program in place, even if it ultimately meant sticking with the status-quo.
NPR – Bill Chappell
Reuters – Patricia Zengerle and Warren Strobel
Wired – Yael Grauer