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As Patriot Act Expiration Looms, Critics Hope for Sunset on Mass Surveillance

With a deadline for the USA Patriot Act fast approaching, Congress has little time to decide how to proceed—but the call to ‘sunset’ the law is growing. (Photo: Dan Cook/flickr/cc/with overlay)

‘Together we will end the Patriot Act, and the sun can rise on a new day filled with freedom and privacy for all.’

By Nadia Prupis and Deirdre Fulton

With the fate of the USA Patriot Act still hanging in the balance late afternoon Friday—and lawmakers eager to leave Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day barbecues and campaign stops in their home states—the chance to see the sun go down on the controversial spying bill is still on the table.

The debate over the Patriot Act is centered around one of its key provisions, Section 215, which is set to expire on June 1 absent congressional action. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) previously relied on Section 215 to justify its mass phone data collection operation, but its expiration would force an end to that program.

With that “sunset” approaching, lawmakers have the chance to reform the Patriot Act, end it altogether, or pass a clean re-authorization that renews all the provisions set to expire in mere days.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the most outspoken supporter of a clean re-authorization, arguing that the Patriot Act in its current form is a crucial tool in the so-called “War on Terror.” FBI director James Comey also said this week that it would be a “big problem” to lose the authority that the law bestows on the intelligence agencies.

Adding to the urgency is the Obama administration’s warning that Congress only has until Friday to act on the law, because the government will need time to scale down its phone data program if it is not re-authorized. The House of Representatives has already left for the Memorial Day weekend.

The White House, along with the U.S. House, supports reform legislation called the USA Freedom Act, and warned that “there is no Plan B, these are authorities Congress must legislate.”

Should the Senate fail to pass the reform bill, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Friday, there is nothing the president can do to stop the Patriot Act provisions from lapsing.

Of course, that would be just fine with privacy activists and advocacy groups who oppose intrusive government surveillance. At protests held in dozens of cities on Thursday, demonstrators called on Congress to oppose any re-authorization of the Patriot Act and instead let its spying provisions sunset as scheduled on June 1.

“It’s time we came together and let the sun go down on this dark age of government surveillance,” said Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer. “Together we will end the Patriot Act, and the sun can rise on a new day filled with freedom and privacy for all.”

Free Press Action Fund government relations manager Sandra Fulton added, “The nationwide sunset vigils have sent a signal to Washington: It’s time we closed this chapter on mass surveillance and restored everyone’s rights to connect and communicate in private.”

However, The Hill reported Friday that “momentum appeared to be on the side of reformers, whose hopes were buoyed by the near certainty that the Senate will either need to pass [the House version of] the USA Freedom Act, or allow three parts of the post-9/11 law to sunset.”

The report went on to say the USA Freedom Act “has the backing of the majority of the Senate—including all Democrats—but it remains unclear whether it has the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles during what increasingly looks like a rare Memorial Day weekend session.”

The USA Freedom Act passed the House on May 14 with an overwhelming 338-88 vote. But according to advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the USA Freedom Act is a “small step instead of a giant leap,” particularly in comparison with previous iterations of the bill, introduced in 2013 and 2014, which offered stronger reforms but failed to progress through Congress.

The Act grants a five-year extension to Section 215.

After the bill passed the House, Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, warned that the USA Freedom Act would actually “expand the scope of surveillance” by the NSA and others.

“This is a fake privacy bill,” Cheng said. “Corrupt members of Congress and their funders in the defense industry are attempting to package up their surveillance-powers wishlist and misleadingly brand it as ‘USA Freedom.’ This is disappointing and offensive, and we will continue to work to kill this bill and any other attempt to legitimize unconstitutional surveillance systems.”

Opposition to the Patriot Act has grown steadily since whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed Section 215’s role in the NSA spying program. The call to let the provision expire only grew after a federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that the agency’s phone surveillance operation is illegal. And as Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out, a Justice Department investigation into the FBI’s use of Section 215, released Thursday, found that the provision has never been particularly useful in anti-terrorism efforts.

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CTuttle

CTuttle

  • http://firedoglake.com/ CTuttle

    The Hill is reporting tonite… Senate locked in evening NSA showdown

    The Senate is headed for a pair of late Friday evening votes on competing bills to reauthorize portions of the Patriot Act, with little certainty about the path forward.

    Neither a National Security Agency (NSA) reform bill called the USA Freedom Act nor Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) two-month “clean” extension of the expiring
    Patriot Act provisions appears to have the necessary 60 votes to move forward.

    Failure of both measures would increase the odds of an even shorter-term reauthorization of the current law — or the chance that the legal measures expire entirely.

  • dubinsky

    FBI used Patriot Act to obtain ‘large collections’ of Americans’ data, DoJ finds

    Report by department’s inspector general found that the FBI received from the Fisa court 51 orders for such data between 2007 and 2009

    http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/21/fbi-patriot-act-doj-report

    A long-delayed Justice Department report showed that the FBI uses the surveillance authorities it provides for “large collections” of Americans’ internet records.

    Section 215 of the Patriot Act permits the FBI to collect business records, such as medical, educational and tax information or other “tangible things” relevant to an ongoing counter–terrorism or espionage investigation. Since 2006, the NSA had also secretly used it to collect US phone data in bulk.

    After Edward Snowden’s leaks allowed the Guardian to reveal the phone-records bulk collection in June 2013, deep political opposition coalesced around the bulk program – eclipsing the FBI’s acquisition of other data, which has long been an issue only for civil libertarians.

    But a Justice Department inspector general’s report finally released on Thursday covering the FBI’s use of Section 215 from 2007 to 2009 found that the bureau is using the business-records authority “to obtain large collections of metadata”, such as “electronic communication transactional information”.

    The specifics of that collection – which civil libertarians have called “bulky”, to signal that it is not bulk collection but not far off – are not provided in the redacted report.

    —-

    good sources provide good info, tut.

  • http://firedoglake.com/ CTuttle

    Here’s a great compilation of videos… “Security in Times of Surveillance” 2015

  • http://firedoglake.com/ CTuttle

    Marcy wrote a great post today… The Section 215 Rap Sheet

  • dubinsky

    that’s the spirit, an excellent source……

  • Alice X

    Thomas Paine

    Common Sense

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/147

    Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first a patron, the last a punisher.

  • jo6pac

    I’m sure my elected official will do the right thing for the citizens of Amerika and the world.
    some times I even scare myself. Sad

  • http://firedoglake.com/ CTuttle

    Do you really think I give a damn about whether you approve of my sourcing or not, dub…?

  • dick_c

    USA Freedom Act… it’s gotten so you can tell what a bill isn’t just by looking at its name.

  • dubinsky

    are you trying to start a fight, tut?

    I offered a link to some good reporting and praised Marcy Wheeler as a good source

    is that a problem for you?

  • http://Smilejamaicakrcl.com Bobbylon

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-05-23/rand-paul-blocks-extension-patriot-act-future-illegal-nsa-spying-americans-limbo

    If I still voted, this might make me consider to think about the possibility of voting for him

    Hillary? she can go pound sand