The USA Freedom Act, passed in the Senate yesterday by a 67-32 vote and quickly signed by the president, purports to “reform the authorities of the Federal Government” to (among other things) conduct electronic surveillance for “foreign intelligence, counterterrorism, and criminal purposes.”
Many of those authorities — which the National Security Agency (NSA) has used to justify the collection of phone records — had been found in provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that expired at midnight Sunday night. Therefore, Congress could have eliminated those surveillance powers merely by doing nothing.
Despite promises made by its supporters, the USA Freedom Act doesn’t end government snooping. It merely shifts the responsibility for collecting communications metadata from the NSA to companies such as AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, which already keep customer records for as long as five years. The NSA or the FBI would simply need to obtain permission from the secret FISA Court to access that data — and the court nearly always grants it.
After H.R. 2048 reached the Senate, a three-way battle erupted among senators who wanted to pass that legislation; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposed even its very limited restrictions on NSA snooping and wanted to renew the expiring portions of the PATRIOT Act intact; and those such as Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposed both the PATRIOT Act and the USA Freedom Act.
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