The saga of the sunsetting of Section 215 of the Patriot Act is unfolding with the House passage of the USA Freedom Act a few days ago. And while some lawmakers feel the Act does not go far enough in curbing NSA surveillance abuses (in fact many of the no-voters felt the bill wasn’t strong enough), it still appears to be at least a step in the right direction. The measure now moves to the Senate, where it will meet stiffer opposition.
The first obstacle the bill will face there is a concerted effort by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to water it down. Failing that he proposes extending the expiration of Section 215 to 31 July, ostensibly to allow more debate on the issue.
His attempts to pass a law that would extend Section 215 to 2020 appear dead in the water. However, even a diluted measure is not guaranteed passage, as several senators, on the heels of a Court of Appeals ruling Section 215 unlawful, are making a big stink, and threatening to oppose any extension of it.
Backers of the surveillance-strong Section 215 trot out all the usual suspects, falling back on “national security” to rally support for their position. Besides McConnell, the group is spearheaded by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who said last week that,
“We’re not taking up the House bill. The program as designed is effective and members are reluctant to change things that are effective just because of public opinion. When you do away with bulk storage, you basically have an unworkable situation in real-time.”
His assessment, of course, flies in the face of other opinions which suggest that the very nature of collecting massive amounts of data is counter-productive, rendering the information too much to be analyzed or digested, and thus ineffectual. As is usual with this White House, it is sending mixed signals on the measure.
On one hand, it had set up a task force to study the issues (which, by the way, concluded that it could not find any terror attacks stopped by the program). On the other, it has wavered in support of real reforms to surveillance, as usual straddling the fence when cogent leadership is required. Even its Department of Justice could present no evidence as to the utility of the program, or its efficacy.
Let us pause for a moment, and consider what the surveillance landscape would look like without bulk collection and storage. First, it would free up manpower and resources to pursue legitimate, live, real-time targets that threaten us. Important assets, now engaged in attempting to sift through reams of innocuous data, could be unleashed to fight the war on terror and thwart crime. And just as importantly, individuals’ private data would remain just that – private – without the danger of it being extracted and abused by a furtive prosecutorial agency at some nebulous time in the future.
Now that the Second Court of Appeals has ruled bulk collection and storage unconstitutional, it is high-time for the political posturing and shenanigans to stop. The court has declared bulk collection as a program to be moot, so it is difficult to see how even a watered-down version would be palatable to the court.
So why pursue this illegal course? Apparently, those fond of Section 215 don’t want to see it die an ignominious death, and are hoping that a greatly diluted USA Freedom Act will be the next best thing to extending Section 215 outright.
The hope is that reason will prevail, although knowing how dysfunctional Congress is, this is but a faint hope. But one way or another, the public will be relieved from the drudgery of debate soon, as the deadline for expiration is less than two weeks away. We will continue to report of the death throes of the provision until passage of a new law is final.