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With Section 215 to Sunset , the NSA and FBI go on the offensive

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

April 20, 2015

Section 215 of the much maligned post-9/11 Patriot Act is on life support, with about six weeks remain for the draconian surveillance law. With it will go the sweeping data collection practices of the NSA and their ilk..

The agencies fear that its expiration will have a deeper negative impact on their efforts than merely the loss of bulk data collection. With its lifespan in peril, it appears that broad support for extending its powers is absent – particularly in the House. The FBI, for example, is warning that it would lose access to investigative leads for domestic terrorism, and espionage as well.

Late in 2014, you may recall being reported, a bill known as the Freedom Act was floated without success in the lame duck congress, as both advocates and opponents seemed willing to let it die in the hope that a bill more favorable to their side would emerge in the spring. There is some movement on a measure similar to the ill-fated Freedom Act which would extend the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act-namely section 215- for an undetermined number of years.

In this case the Senate GOP leadership’s remote hope of a straight reauthorization of section 215 would be dashed. More likely, according to multiple Hill sources, a different option is under consideration: making the major NSA reform bill of the last congress (the USA Freedom Act) the point of departure for reauthorizing 215 in the current one.

As has been the custom, this White House is on the fence and sending mixed signals. It belatedly and hesitantly endorsed the doomed Freedom Act in November, climbing aboard the train when it appeared to have support, only to see that it missed the station. Several privacy activists inside and outside of Congress are not convinced that the Freedom Act goes far enough in curbing surveillance abuses.

Gaining some traction as an alternative is a measure that has bi-partisan support. Titled the Surveillance State Repeal Act, it would repeal the entire Patriot Act,plus a landmark 2008 expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa). The proposed legislation also includes protection from prosecution for whistleblowers, and raises the bar for warrants under Fisa to having to show probable cause. But though it has backers on both side of the aisle, the Surveillance State Repeal Act only has ten co-sponsors.

The fate of surveillance reform, and the demise of the Patriot Act, apparently reside in the hands of many freshman Congressman who are being lobbied hard by both supporters and opponents of strong surveillance. Seasoned veteran Congressmen – especially those on the Select Intelligence Committee – are attempting to play down public outcry from those who champion surveillance reform.

Again, and it has frequently been the plea in this space, if you are in a position to make your voice heard on the issue, please do it. Politicians are never more attuned to voter’s attitudes as when election time draws near – and 2016 is just around the corner and already is shaping up to be a doozy.

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