Congress Did Not Pass an Anti-Surveillance Law (And Other Thoughts About the USA Freedom Act)

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When President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, it did not end bulk data collection or mass surveillance programs. It did not address many of the policies, practices or programs of the NSA, which NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. It did not sharply limit surveillance nor was it an anti-surveillance law. The USA Freedom Act renewed Patriot Act provisions, which had sunset days ago. However, it is difficult to disagree with Snowden’s generally optimistic assessment.

During an Amnesty International UK event, as the Senate was about to pass the law, Snowden declared, “For the first time in forty years of US history, since the intelligence community was reformed in the ’70s, we found that facts have become more persuasive than fear.”

Snowden continued, “For the first time in recent history we found that despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision and that is a radical change that we should seize on, we should value and we should push further.”

He was specifically referring to how the Congress and courts had rejected this NSA surveillance program.

In that sense, June 2 was a day that the people won against the security state. US citizens took away the government’s control of nearly all of their domestic call records. And power was forced to act because their operation of a program and the operations of a secret surveillance court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, were no longer seen as legitimate.

The extent of the victory, however, probably ends there.

As another NSA whistleblower, Bill Binney, said during an event in Chicago, the USA Freedom Act was a “surface change.” The government still has Executive Order 12333, which it can use for “content collection of US domestic communications as well as metadata. It’s all done through the Upstream programs. It’s done without oversight at all. There’s no oversight by Congress or the courts.” [Upstream is the series of different cables and fiber optic taps that the NSA uses to collect data that passes through fiber networks. Phone calls, emails, cloud transfers, pictures, and video, according to Binney, can all be collected.]

Journalist Marcy Wheeler pointed out that bulk collection of Americans’ international phone calls will continue. “Backdoor searches” under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act will continue, as the NSA can collect emails, browsing and chat history of US citizens without a warrant.

A number of the senators who voted for the USA Freedom Act did so because the three Patriot Act provisions had expired. They wanted something passed quickly so the NSA could resume spying operations that were supposed to be put on hold. So, some senators saw the USA Freedom Act as both a law to protect security as well as privacy.

Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the USA Freedom Act and explained in a released statement that it would still give the NSA and “law enforcement too much access to vast databases of information on millions of innocent Americans.”

The independent senator voted against the Patriot Act and both of the law’s extensions in 2005 and 2011.

The only Democratic senator to vote against the law. (more…)

The Marvelous Moment When a Few Patriot Act Spying Powers Sunset

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Three powers in the Patriot Act expired on Sunday night. Though temporary, the development marked the first time since the September 11th attacks that the expansive and covert global security state suffered a setback, where power was lost.

It was all because of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a shift in public consciousness brought about by what Snowden revealed about massive government surveillance.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was livid as he found himself with no choice but to call for a vote on a motion to debate the USA Freedom Act, a watered-down piece of reform legislation supported by President Barack Obama’s administration and the intelligence community which he had opposed.

On May 20, Senator Rand Paul held the Senate floor for ten and a half hours as he opposed extending provisions of the Patriot Act. His action single-handedly put the Senate in a position, where it would be difficult to prevent expiration.

There was one option: pass the USA Freedom Act, which maintained the “roving wiretap” and “lone wolf” provisions but made changes to the bulk phone records collection program.

On May 22, the USA Freedom Act failed to pass in the Senate. Senators scrambled to save the government’s spying powers. Senator Richard Burr and Senator Dianne Feinstein each proposed their own bills, which would have been very favorable to the country’s intelligence agencies had either piece of legislation gained support.

The Senate’s only alternative to simply letting powers expire was to support a bill that had failed earlier in May. McConnell had to call for a cloture vote on a bill that does not give government the same exact power agencies have had under the Patriot Act. In other words, McConnell had to concede that security hawks would suffer a rare defeat this round. (more…)

Rand Paul Says Iraq Surge ‘Worked’

Something strange is happening to Senator Rand Paul. Since the beginning of his presidential campaign Paul has started to change his positions on a number of issues related to foreign policy and defense spending – issues that previously helped define his political identity.

First, in a surprise to many, Senator Paul signed on to a public letter to Iran that attempted to sabotage a nuclear weapons deal and start a war between the US and Iran. Then Paul argued – in complete contradiction to his history and purported libertarian beliefs – for increasing the defense budget.

Now Senator Paul is claiming the surge in Iraq “worked” despite the overwhelming evidence that the program merely emboldened a corrupt government in Baghdad to pursue unrestrained Shiite domination of Iraq – a dynamic that ultimately paved the way for ISIS to enter the country with Sunni support.

“Whether or not the surge worked–obviously, it worked,” said Paul, responding to a question from Bloomberg. “It was a military tactic and it worked. In fact, some of the ideas from the surge could be used again. In fact, the main problem we have with ISIS is that the Sunni population is either indifferent, supportive, or hates the Shiite government more than it hates ISIS.”

It is hard to figure out which part of this statement is worse – the complete abandonment of previously held principles or the idiotic analysis that claims something “worked” while acknowledging it did not fix the underlying problem. In any case, neither aspect of Paul’s statement is very confidence inspiring for a would-be president.

Senator Rand Paul may have never been a serious candidate for president, but he is proving to be more of a joke with each lame split-the-baby pandering attempt. He seems to have forgot that the reason people were interested in him was his breaking with Republican establishment orthodoxy, not the embracing of it.