Patriot Act, USA Freedom Act, or None of the Above for Privacy vs. National Security?

The U.S. Senate is under pressure to settle the debate over whether H.R. 2048, also known as the USA Freedom Act, will be approved to stop the collection of bulk phone records by the federal government under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

But it is not an “either, or” decision. There are other alternatives. The Senate could also decide to extend Section 215. Or the Senate might choose to let Section 215 expire and replace it with nothing.

It’s not unlike the dilemma that faced Goldilocks. Three choices and she was hungry.

The Senate is under real pressure, too. There are less than two weeks to go before the existing law authorizing the National Security Agency’s metadata collection expires.

The House approved the USA Freedom Act this month by a 338-88 vote. It would stop the NSA from collecting bulk metadata of phone numbers that are dialed and when the calls are placed.

The debate to come in the Senate should sound much like the discourse that played out in the House.

Proponents in the House said the USA Freedom Act was right in line with the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling a week earlier that found the NSA’s metadata collection program was not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who co-sponsored the legislation, promised during the short (one-hour) debate the USA Freedom Act would “end dragnet surveillance” in the U.S.

However, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who has become one of the firebrands leading what he sees as a fight to protect the privacy of Americans under the Fourth Amendment, doesn’t think the 2015 version of the USA Freedom Act goes nearly far enough.

He is afraid the USA Freedom Act, as approved by the House, could also unleash a monster of unconstitutional surveillance that could do more damage than Section 215.

Amash said that while H.R. 2048 would limit bulk collection of Americans’ digital records, it would not end the practice.

“It's true that the bill ends the phone dragnet as we currently know it—by having the phone companies themselves hold, search, and analyze certain data at the request of the government, which is worse in many ways given the broader set of data the companies hold—but H.R. 2048 actually expands the statutory basis for the large-scale collection of most data,” Amash wrote on his Facebook page.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he understood why people are concerned about a government invasion of their privacy though the bulk collection of phone records. King said he shared that concern but still voted against H.R. 2048 because he is so concerned by the threat of terrorism.

He wants Section 215 to be re-authorized.

“ISIS just attacked Americans in Texas on May 3, 2015,” King said in a statement following House approval of H.R. 2048. “Five days later, FBI Director James Comey sounded the alarm claiming hundreds and maybe thousands of people across the country are under the sway of the brutal terrorist group.”

“Any overhaul of our surveillance apparatus must include proper consideration of how to maintain access to the valuable data our intelligence community requires to investigate and preempt terrorist attacks,” King added.

Now the debate goes to the Senate.