Congress guts USA FREEDOM Act, deferring to NSA yet again

Yesterday, closed door negotiations on the House Rules Committee gutted the USA FREEDOM Act, undermining the promises of the bill's bipartisan sponsors to help end mass NSA surveillance. In the wake of the changes, rights and privacy groups abandoned the bill, noting that it has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.

Last summer, whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed secret, mass, arbitrary, and unconstitutional surveillance targeting the American people.

In the year since then, Congress has done more or less nothing to change the law. It is now poised to consider what the ACLU describes as "a slight improvement" far short of "the reform bill that Americans deserve."

According to our colleagues at EFF:

[T]he bill's changed definitions, the lack of substantial reform to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, and the inability to introduce a special advocate in the FISA Court severely weakens [sic] the bill.

In particular, we are concerned with the new definition of "specific selection term," which describes and limits who or what the NSA is allowed to surveil. The new definition is incredibly more expansive than previous definitions.

Before posting a further analysis on the Just Security blog, Harley Geiger, Senior Counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, explained that:

The Leadership of the House is demonstrating that it wants to end the debate about surveillance, rather than end bulk collection. The USA FREEDOM Act was a strong reform measure when it was introduced....Unfortunately, the version...that will reach the House Floor will be so weakened that it may continue to allow mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ private records in the future.

Addressing the process through which the Freedom Act was co-opted, Amie Stepanovich from ACCESS helped identify further reasons for outrage, beyond the substance of this week's amendments:

It’s greatly disappointing to witness House leaders succumb to the pressure applied by the Obama administration and others, turning its back on the compromise version of USA Freedom that so many supported just two weeks ago. The USA FREEDOM Act had previously passed through two committees before being secretly watered down behind closed doors.

Given the recent changes to the bill, BORDC has joined these organizations in withdrawing its support for the Freedom Act. [Update: Conspicuously, only after the bill was watered down did the Obama administration embrace it.]

To those seeking meaningful legislative reforms to curtail NSA surveillance, opportunities remain in the form of other vehicles, like the Surveillance State Repeal Act (SSRA) introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and originally developed as the JUSTICE Act by former Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI), the one Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act when it was originally introduced under the Bush administration.

Most members of Congress -- including those who have spoken publicly about their concerns about NSA surveillance -- have yet to embrace the bill. BORDC encourages concerned constituents seeking a discrete, direct demand to express their outrage to ask their Senators and representatives to examine the SSRA and co-sponsor it.

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We want the funding that NSA is getting to be directed instead to pay for maintenance of the Interstate Highway system, essential for civil defense, and for all infrastructure repairs and construction of our infrastructure. We do no want our interstate highway system to be a toll system of roads that suck more money from the working poor into the pockets of the wealthy. Get rid of NSA entirely.