Showing that Congress realizes that at least something needs to be done to reform the surveillance state, the House voted overwhelmingly for the USA Freedom Act today, 338 to 88 (a significantly higher margin than when they approved last year’s — much weaker — bill). Now, the big question is what will the Senate do? It can try to push forward with Mitch McConnell’s preferred plan of just re-upping Section 215 for another few years with no changes and no restrictions. It can pass basically the same USA Freedom Act. Or, it can pass an even stronger surveillance reform bill. Chances are that it will pass the same bill that the House just passed — but many are pushing for a stronger bill.
Senator Ron Wyden has said that he’s looking to strengthen the Senate version, in particular trying to end backdoor searches under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act:
“I am working with Senate colleagues to pass additional reforms, particularly ending the warrantless backdoor searches of Americans’ personal electronic communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And I have made it clear I will fight any effort to extend mass surveillance of Americans’ records through a straight renewal of the Patriot Act – even a short-term one.
“Supporters of dragnet surveillance are fighting to preserve the status quo, but the American public is rightfully demanding a change. It is time for mass surveillance to end, and I will filibuster any attempt to extend this illegal surveillance, which violates core American rights without making our country any safer.
Meanwhile, Rep. Zoe Lofgren expressed similar concerns in the floor debate before the passage of the bill, noting that it could have been better. She voted for it, but hoped that her colleagues in the Senate would fix things like the backdoor loophole. As she noted, it’s an important step forward, but it did not go far enough:
“The USA FREEDOM Act makes meaningful reforms to a few of our nation’s surveillance programs. I applaud the bill’s authors who worked to make sure these improvements were included.
“But this bill does not end all of the warrantless bulk collection of US persons’ communications and data. While the legislation does not create these privacy violations, it fails to address widely reported privacy violations that occur under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333.
“The House voted last year to close these backdoor forms of warrantless bulk surveillance by an overwhelming margin of 293-123. Reformers were blocked by Leadership and the Rules Committee from considering those much needed improvements to this bill today.
“Continuing these backdoor surveillance programs is wrong, detrimental to our economy, our competitiveness abroad, and the public’s trust. It’s time to end these serious privacy violations so that our government adheres to the constitution and protects electronic privacy.
“This bill is an improvement over the status quo. During Committee consideration the Judiciary Chairman and others assured reformers that once this bill passed we will quickly address backdoor surveillance loopholes under Section 702 and Executive Order 12333. If these commitments are not kept, reformers will reconsider their support for this legislation when it returns to the House from the Senate.”
Again, this bill is a step forward, and the very fact that this debate is happening at all is a sign of how much impact the Snowden leaks have legitimately had on this debate. But, as most people recognize, there is still much to be done — and the first part of that should happen over the next week in the Senate.