Senate Renews, Modifies, Patriot Act
After several delays, the Senate approved a bill extending the Patriot Act and modifying the N.S.A.’s data mining program late yesterday:
WASHINGTON — In a remarkable reversal of national security policy formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Senate voted on Tuesday to curtail the federal government’s sweeping surveillance of American phone records, sending the legislation to President Obama’s desk for his signature.
The passage of the measure, achieved after a vigorous debate on the Senate floor, will lead to the reinstatement of government surveillance efforts that were blacked out on Monday after Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, blocked their extension.
The vote was a rebuke to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, as lawmakers beat back a series of amendments that he sought that would have rolled back proposed controls on government spying.
Mr. McConnell took the Senate floor to give a speech unusual in its timing and tenacity before the final vote on the bill, which he cast with derision. The new law, he said, would “take one more tool away from those who defend our country every day.”
The vote was held after members of the House starkly warned that they would not accept any changes to the law, setting off an unusual stalemate between House Speaker John A. Boehner and Mr. McConnell.
President Obama said on Twitter that he would sign the bill when it comes to his desk.
“Glad the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act,” he wrote on the @POTUS Twitter account. “It protects civil liberties and our national security. I’ll sign it as soon as I get it.”
Prior to the debate, Senator Rand Paul, who was largely solely responsible for the fact that the Senate was unable to pass this bill before the Patriot Act expired at midnight on Sunday, and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden introduced a series of amendments aimed at placing more restrictions on the data mining program and other aspects of the Patriot Act. Among other things, these amendments would have required the government to get a warrant to access data in the hands of third parties, raised the standard required for a metadata warrant from a FISA court to “probable cause,” and in other ways have tightened the privacy and transparency provisions in the USA Freedom Act. Each of these amendments were rejected, as were other amendments offered by other Republican Senators that would have reversed many of the reforms to the metadata program that are included in the bill that passed the House. Had that set of amendments passed, the fate of the bill would have been far from certain since many Republicans on the other side of Capitol Hill had made clear that they would not accept a Senate bill that effectively rescinded the changes they had made to the metadata program.
As I said when this debate began in the House, ideally we would have just let the Patriot Act lapse. There’s really been no credible evidence presented that it has played any kind of significant role in law enforcement or intelligence operations related to the War On Terror over the past fourteen years, and it’s been used more to prosecute drug crimes than anything else. Nonetheless, it was clear that some kind of extension of the law was going to pass Congress and be signed into law at some point, and the reforms that the House passed to the data mining program are a significant improvement over what existed before. Instead of having the National Security Agency sweeping in and collecting all metadata from every telecommunications company several times a year, the government will now be required to go to a Federal Judge to receive a warrant to access particularized data. Granted, the standard they will have to meet in that case is lower than the “probable cause” standard required under the Fourth Amendment, but taking the data out of the hands of the government is a good step forward. Additionally, the bill also provides for a somewhat more adversarial process in the FISA Court when dealing with warrants like these, and that is certainly a step in the right direction. All in all, Senator Paul and Senator Wyden were right to stick to their guns here but now that we’ve accomplished this much we can look ahead to the future when we can reform this process even more and, in at least some cases, end it altogether.
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