In a surprise Wednesday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved to advance the USA Freedom Act. The bill needs 60 votes to end debate and then a majority vote to pass the Senate.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and would reform some of the government’s surveillance operations leaked to the public by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The NSA would be prohibited from the sweeping collection of the cell phone metadata of American citizens and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) would also have greater transparency. Under the Freedom Act, the FISA Court would allow the appointment of a “public advocate” who would be present for all hearings. As of now, the court hears no opposition to the government’s requests for surveillance warrants.
Sensenbrenner released a statement yesterday on Reid’s move for cloture: “Although far too many good bills continue to collect dust on Senator Reid’s desk, I am pleased he has finally decided to move the USA FREEDOM Act. There is no excuse not to pass this fundamental piece of legislation during the lame duck. Once the Senate acts, I encourage my colleagues in the House and the President to be prepared to promptly enact it into law. Senator Leahy and I introduced the USA FREEDOM Act over a year ago. It is past-time for Washington to ensure Americans’ civil liberties are protected while preserving important intelligence gathering authorities that are vital to our national security.”
Sensenbrenner was also the author of the Patriot Act, which gave the NSA post 9/11 much of its current wide-reaching powers. The Patriot Act is set to expire in June of next year.
The Freedom Act is not without controversy. Some original supporters have criticized the bill for being watered down. When the Freedom Act passed the House in a vote earlier this year, it did so with some notable opposition. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) an initial supporter, voted no and released a statement saying “But the bill was so weakened in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the last week that the government still can order—without probable cause—a telephone company to turn over all call records for ‘area code 616’ or for ‘phone calls made east of the Mississippi.’ The bill green-lights the government’s massive data collection activities that sweep up Americans’ records in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
Other privacy advocates in the House also turned against the bill.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) was a vocal critic of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act’s (CISPA) implications for Americans’ privacy. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said she’d been denied her attempt to introduce an amendment to make it easier for Internet companies to reveal orders to disclose user data. When Snowden’s revelations first went public a year ago, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) went on an anti-NSA tear and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) immediately called for a congressional review of the Patriot Act that justified the agency’s actions.
The bill also has some unusual supporters. Central Intelligence Agency Chief James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder both recently endorsed the bill, calling it a “reasonable compromise.”
President Obama has indicated he would sign the bill if it goes to his desk.