CommunityThe Dissenter

The Marvelous Moment When a Few Patriot Act Spying Powers Sunset

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.

However, the Senate could not vote on the USA Freedom Act and pass it before midnight because Paul objected. Paul succeeded in forcing expiration of Patriot Act powers, as he had pledged.

People like Senator John McCain and Feinstein were furious with Paul. This is what Feinstein declared after the Senate failed to save the Patriot Act powers from expiration:

The need for investigators to collect intelligence on known or suspected terrorists can’t be overstated. Our national security—not to mention the safety of all Americans—is at stake.

That’s why it’s so irresponsible for one senator to prevent action to extend and reform three key counterterrorism tools for his own political gain. Holding critical national security programs hostage to raise political donations is outrageous, but that’s where we stand today.

Senators incensed by Paul’s actions sought to make it about his grandstanding and his crusading for an ideological cause. Yet, what about their grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes around terrorism?

What about their consistent efforts throughout the past 14 years to promote fear in order to expand spying powers and defend the global security state, which has run roughshod on so many people’s civil liberties?

One of Paul’s major objections was that the USA Freedom Act was going to be passed in an emergency session without any opportunity for senators to present amendments.

Here is one amendment Paul wanted to propose, which he believes he will now be able to push forward:

…One of the things we would like to do is to say that when they search the phone records that they can’t put the name of a corporation in there, that they would have to put an individual’s name.

It’s kind of tricky about the way these things are worded. The wording of this bill will say that they can only put a U.S. person into the selector term to search all the phone records. The problem is that they define U.S. person as also meaning corporation or association or grouping.

So there is a little bit of looseness to the language, and so if we are still going to allow corporation, what is to stop them from going back and putting AT&T or Verizon in the selection and then once again they are looking at all the phone records, and all we have done is transferred the phone records from government control in Utah to phone company control in another location…

Another amendment Paul plans to propose is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court must adopt the constitutional standard of probable cause under the Fourth Amendment. (Paul proposed a similar amendment in 2011 when the same powers were up for extension.)

Is it so unreasonable to want more debate and to want to be able to amend legislation? That should never be a cause for hyperventilation and panic.

There is a lot that could happen in the next 24 hours. McConnell and other security hawks will undoubtedly seize upon the opportunity to amend the USA Freedom Act so it is more acceptable to them. A few senators in the Senate may try to strengthen the bill with provisions aimed at strengthening privacy protections, but most will likely hold their nose and vote for the reform legislation and squander a key moment to bring about more substantive change.

Regardless of how events unfold in the Senate, a blow against a highly secretive and vast global security state occurred. The tactic of waiting until days before expiration to take action did not create the kind of crisis that had in the past led to a ritual reauthorization of provisions.

What happened may barely put a dent in the global security state. Senators are likely to succeed in restoring some of the lost powers, and many experts will maintain nothing much happened because there were ways for spy agencies to get around the expiration of powers.

Yet, what unfolded matters and should be regarded as a victory for those who are deeply concerned about mass surveillance. It showed the global security state is not entirely invincible. Even if only a handful of senators are willing to take some kind of decisive action on behalf of privacy, gridlock and dysfunction can occur and aid in the dismantling of key programs, which are illegitimate and unlawful.

Witnessing senators scramble to serve the interests of the global security state when no amount of fear-mongering would save the Patriot Act spying powers from sunsetting was momentous. It was a brief bright spot in a long-term struggle that citizens will continue to wage against the government.

And, once more, credit is due to Edward Snowden for helping to make this moment possible.

Previous post

The Weekend Roundup for May 30-31st, 2015

Next post

White House Insists Snowden is Still Guilty of 'Very Serious Crimes'

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."


  1. ThingsComeUndone
    June 1, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    “…One of the things we would like to do is to say that when they search the phone records that they can’t put the name of a corporation in there, that they would have to put an individual’s name.

    But Mitt Romney and the Supreme Court say Corporations are people. Would Rand’s bill prevent the NSA from spying on any corporation? What if al Quieda decides to incorporate would all they communications be protected by law? Since when have corporations have had problems with the NSA is Rand worried a future US President might be to the Left of Obama?

  2. FukTheArmy
    June 1, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    This changes nothing, the illegal spying will continue unabated.
    Because they can, and law or no law won’t stop them.
    “We don’t need no stinkin’ law”
    These agencies operate outside of the law with no oversight, no accountability.
    And as in recent years, the illegality will be made legal-retroactively.

  3. ThingsComeUndone
    June 1, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    “Witnessing senators scramble to serve the interests of the global security state when no amount of fear-mongering would save the Patriot Act spying powers from sunsetting was momentous. ” Every Senator thinks he/she would make a better President than the current one no matter who is in office. Every Senator with pot becoming legal thinks the NSA is Rand Paul’s one trick pony the other candidates do not have to get to the WH. Every Senator thinks there will be more leaks about another NSA spying scandal, more war crimes related to spying, etc etc between now and the Presidential race. No Senator thinks they will have a shot at being anyone’s VP if they vote for this and the NSA has another scandal.

  4. kgosztola
    June 1, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Blinded by your paralyzing cynicism, you missed the point of the post entirely. Healthy skepticism is always warranted, but you should have the decency to recognize when power is forced to react as it did that is overall a good thing.

  5. bsbafflesbrains
    June 1, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Great post and thanks for a very good rundown of what happened sans the “inside baseball” confusion for those of us outside the Beltway. Totally agree that Snowden made this happen and unlikely partnering of Libertarians and Progressives among others. We can all agree to disagree about many things but Constitutional protections of all Citizens seem to finally be at issue. I participated in StandwithRand as did many others who would not ascribe to his overall political positions. If we can’t mobilize to protect and preserve our Constitutional rights we only have a Plutocracy run by Corporate interests with mainly the preternaturally stupid “smartest guys in the room”.
    It is what it is and you stated it perfectly in your headline as well.

  6. June 1, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    You have to include Wyden in that group with McConnell. got an e-mail over the weekend supporting the extension using USA Freedom Act as the “savior”. Yeah, right! And guess who I’ll be supporting NOT! in the next election.

    Here’s his pitch:
    :We worked at a fevered pitch to demand reforms on the Patriot Act and preserve American’s right to privacy.
    Unfortunately, our push to pass the USA Freedom Act failed (for now),
    but the other side also backed down (for the moment) on their push to
    extend the Patriot Act without any changes….”

    “For now” and “for the moment”.

    Oh and I forgot to say the e-mail was a pitch for money.

  7. Robert Johnson
    June 1, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Good redad, Keven

  8. karenjj2
    June 1, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    X2, baffles — especially “thanks, Kevin!”
    no one notes that one other, more important provision in my opinion, also expired: the ability to root through business records without subpoena including medical, financial as well as purchases shipments, etc., etc. You’d think the CoC would be on board with that!

  9. Shutter
    June 1, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    And your youth and eagerness to be incisive betrays you Kevin — as usual. FTA didn’t miss the point of your post, he simply cut to the chase. Your sarcastic reply is what is out of place. Stick around three or four more decades and you’ll learn a lot.

  10. kgosztola
    June 1, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    My “eagerness to be incisive betrays” me? And “as usual”? What does that even mean?

    Are you commenting on something I wrote or critiquing my ability to rise in power and take control of a majestic kingdom?

  11. June 1, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Today, Rand again thwarted Mitch’s attempt to speed up the vote…

    Paul blocks Senate from speeding up NSA vote

    Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blocked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
    (R-Ky.) on Monday from moving up a procedural vote on the USA Freedom

    McConnell tried to move up the House-backed bill from a Tuesday vote to Monday evening. Because the Republican leader was trying to circumvent Senate rules, he needed consent from every senator. But, Paul, who is running for president, objected, saying that he “would be happy” to allow the vote sooner, but only if he
    gets votes on his amendments.

    “I would be happy to agree to dispensing with the time and having a vote at the soonest possibility if we were allowed to accommodate amendments for those of us who object to the bill,” he told McConnell on the Senate floor. “But at this point I object.”

  12. Shutter
    June 1, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    I’m saying you’re a smart-assed smug know-it-all who has a lot to learn.


  13. ThingsComeUndone
    June 1, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Just how long can we keep selling products that the NSA has back door access too? Paranoid people don’t want these products, Entrepreneurs who are competing against Connected companies for contracts can’t compete if their bids are made known, Divorce lawyers are not going to waste their time asking does your ex have any friends, relatives in the NSA as soon as a NSA proof phone, computer etc comes out every divorce lawyer will insist their clients by one as of course will drug dealers, politicians and foreigners.

  14. bsbafflesbrains
    June 1, 2015 at 5:25 pm


  15. bsbafflesbrains
    June 1, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    and NSA employees for that matter. They are preventing the next Snowden with vigor so all NSA employees are under the heightened scrutiny of “see something say something” Obama’s whistleblower prevention Act.

  16. ThingsComeUndone
    June 1, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    America can have Google, Apple, Microsoft etc continue to be the top tech companies in the world or we can continue to have the same great level of security that let the Boston Marathon bombers bomb Boston.
    We should be asking does NSA spying work at all to prevent terror attacks. We should be asking what else can we do to prevent terror attacks. Withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan and stop funding Israel do those 3 things and we should be able to cut terror and military spending by how much?
    Compare the costs of 10 + years of war and compare the benefits of another 10 + years of war. If some troll screams anti semite ask if they are willing to pay higher taxes to fund more war, Israel etc. Ever notice just how anti tax, Israel’s friends are in Congress.

  17. June 1, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Here’s a brand new service… Scrambl3…

  18. ThingsComeUndone
    June 1, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks checking it out now.:)

  19. Beverly Lawson
    June 1, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Clear and shabby…the exchanges here usually are a bit more reasonable. Kevin has been around for a long time and can certainly defend himself.

  20. kgosztola
    June 1, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    It’s a shame you don’t have something positive to contribute to this discussion. Because it certainly is an important one to have.

  21. June 1, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    If I still voted, Rand Paul would get my vote.

    Wow, Dianne Feinstein has devolved into quite a monster since being Mayor of SF

    Dems are just circling the bowl as any credible “alternative”

    Please go the way of the Whigs

  22. June 1, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Widen another Fauxgressive

    He is Obama’s point man on TPP

  23. June 1, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    Keeping the corporation’s name out is win win in the United State of Oligarchy

    Verizon, Google, Facebook make money selling data to the gov’t but don’t want to lose any customers over it

    Fascism, Corporatism, call it what you want…

  24. Shutter
    June 1, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    FTA’s original comment was perfectly within the range of normal replies here or at any other blog where opinions are welcomed and not ridiculed because they hit somebody’s sensitive zone. His viewpoint has a ton of historical validity to it and really in no way I can figure out justified your sarcastic response.

    As for my contributions to this discussion, if it leads you to be more open-minded about comments, its a good thing. You wrote the thing so it seems incumbent upon you to lead an open followup discussion. Instead you leaped on a commenter, describing his contribution as ‘paralyzing cynicism’.

    Otherwise, I like your stuff.

  25. Shutter
    June 1, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    Definitely clear. And not shabby at all. Politics isn’t for the timid or thin-skinned.

    Its interesting you don’t address his unwarranted criticism of FTA. Shutting down FTA with a personal attack is ok with you? Where do we draw the line Bev? Is this an open forum with different viewpoints or a one-way street where posters are free to ridicule commenters but commenters are discouraged from calling foul?

  26. Shutter
    June 1, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    I had to look that one up.

  27. bsbafflesbrains
    June 1, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    .While your at it look up Ad Hominem and try to refrain.

  28. Southern
    June 1, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    The thing about all this spying is that they’re been spying on the wrong people, the public is not to blame — Nine eleven simply could not have been pulled off without a very high level of insider assistance, something which has not been properly investigated, instead 23 X they’ve been hiding behind state secret privilege while ultimately they’ve also been allowed to profit from telling those lies.

    Remember those steel framed buildings completely destroyed like a carefully planned demolition job, and the never released footage of what actually flew into the pentagon.

  29. kgosztola
    June 1, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    There has been an open discussion. Nobody here has been stopped or told by me that they cannot or should not be commenting.

  30. sisterlauren
    June 2, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    I bet if I was in congress it would have been different. I think I would have been able to make the other people in congress realize that the spying is a whole lot worse than they think it is.

    I think, like accepting gays as people you kind of have to know one first, that the people in congress would take the illegal spying a lot more seriously if they knew someone personally to whom it had happened to. Not only was I illegally spied on, but it ruined my life. If I was in congress I could tell that story to the other people in congress, and then if they still voted for it point out to them that it was treasonous.

    I wonder what would happen to congress people if they were busy leaking the details of how the other people in congress were committing treason. I expect they could get killed.