Senate Ready to Rumble Over Freedom Act Amendments

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted to close debate on the USA Freedom Act, a measure that would prohibit the NSA from the indiscriminate collection Americans’ phone call data. The bill already has passed in the House.

However, the brawling over the bill is not quite over. The Senate has yet to address several proposed amendments to the legislation before voting on it later on Tuesday.

Assuming that it passes a version that’s agreeable to the House, President Obama could sign it into law by Tuesday night.

Action on the proposal is viewed as urgent, because several provisions in the Patriot Act expired Monday, due to the U.S. Senate’s failure to act on a different bill — backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — that would have renewed the language allowing the NSA to pursue its broad telephone surveillance activities.

Passage of the alternative House-approved measure was impeded by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who argued the Freedom Act doesn’t go far enough to prevent unwarranted surveillance of Americans.

While some administration officials have predicted dire consequences from letting the Patriot Act’s surveillance provisions sunset — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declared Friday that the United States “would lose entirely an important capability that helps us identify potential U.S. based associates of foreign terrorists” — others discount the impact of the Senate’s nonaction on the matter.

Losing Nothing

“Only a very, very tiny part of the NSA’s data collection has been curtailed by sunsetting the metadata collection program, which has already been declared illegal by a circuit court,” explained Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst for IT Harvest.

“As it turns out, no one can point to any evidence that that particular program has ever helped counterterrorism,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Some of the largest NSA data sweeps — those aimed at Google’s and Yahoo’s data centers, for example — were done without citing Patriot Act authorization, Stiennon added.

“The NSA’s surveillance program is alive and well,” he said.

The controversial surveillance program under section 215 of the Patriot Act has resulted in no material benefit to protecting us from terrorists, recent reports from the FBI, the President’s Review Group, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board all have found.

“What we’re going to lose is nothing,” Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Monday at a press event.

“What we’re going to gain is perhaps being able to use millions and millions of our tax dollars towards something that will actually keep us safer, as opposed to just propping up a bloated program that doesn’t have any demonstrated effect of keeping us safer,” she added.

Beyond the Patriot Act

“I hope this marks a turning point in terms of trying to rein in the national security infrastructure, which has been let go without much oversight or limitation after the Patriot Act,” Cohn said, in response to TechNewsWorld’s query on the impact of the political battle.

“It’s time for the pendulum to swing back a little bit and have a better balance,” she added.

There needs to be a better balance between privacy and security, urged Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom.

“National security hawks will undoubtedly use the sunset as an excuse to push for weaker reforms or a return to the pre-sunset status quo,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Instead, Congress must redouble its efforts to reset the balance between privacy and security — not just for the intelligence agencies, but for law enforcement, too,” Szoka said. “That means finally protecting Americans’ emails from warrantless searches by police — a reform supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the House.”

Meanwhile, even the minimal surveillance reforms in the USA Freedom Act could find tough sledding in the Senate. The proposed amendments could alter the measure drastically. If those changes are adopted, they’re not likely to sit well with the House.

“The House has made it very clear that they are not interested in a weaker version of the bill,” Constitution Project Senior Counsel Rita Siemion told TechNewsWorld. “We’re at the compromise point.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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