Edward Snowden may have won a vicarious victory through a libertarian proxy, but he has not won the war. The expiration of several important provisions of the Patriot Act on Sunday night reveals a change of heart about the United States’ security policies nearly 14 years after the 9/11 attacks.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul, the leader of his party’s libertarian wing, scored a major victory when he successfully blocked — for now — the renewal of several sections of the Patriot Act, which was signed in April 2001 by President George W. Bush. The expiration of these provisions on Sunday at the stroke of midnight means that the National Security Agency will no longer be able to collect Americans’ mass phone data for anti-terrorism surveillance, a secret program revealed by systems administrator Edward Snowden. It means that, among other things, the FBI will no longer be able to invoke the famous law in certain cases to set up phone tapping operations.
But only for now. As of this week, the legislative void is expected to be filled by the Senate after it adopts a compromise law, the Freedom Act. It has already been approved by the House of Representatives. The bill will transfer mass telephone data archives from the NSA to telephone companies. Though this new law will partially reduce the NSA’s ability to collect this metadata, it will not significantly hinder the vast majority of the U.S. agency’s large-scale surveillance activities. If need be, the attorney general can use a grandfather clause to retain investigative powers. Many say that in any case, U.S. intelligence services will surely find a way to secretly use “creative” ways to protect their prerogatives.
It is still nothing less than an extraordinary moment in the controversial history of the Patriot Act and the 2013 scandal about institutional violations of privacy started by Snowden, who is still on the run. The main reason is because it is the result of an internal battle within the Republican Party led by a libertarian and an anti-statist at heart. The struggle has even resonated with Democrats, much to the Obama administration’s chagrin. It is a strange convergence.
Rand Paul, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is copiously criticized by a number of his colleagues, including the influential John McCain, who called him a “wacko bird.” He didn’t improve his standing among them when on Sunday, he declared, “The people who argue that the world will end and we will be overrun by jihadists are trying to use fear. Little by little, we’ve allowed our freedom to slip away.” Last Wednesday, he attracted a barrage of friendly fire when he stated that “ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS.”
It is true that Paul is a minority figure, his strength is in delay tactics, and he probably would not have succeeded had the Senate majority leader been more attentive. But what is really refreshing, setting aside the right-wing ideology that fuels his arguments, is seeing him be a fly in the Republicans’ ointment.
The episode is a sign of an evolution in Congress’ attitude, and by extension, American opinion. Bipartisan unanimity about security issues has come to an end. Snowden revealed the erosion of citizens’ liberties. Americans will remain concerned about it as long as the debate lasts until the 2018 elections.*
*Editor’s note: It is unclear whether the author is referring to the next U.S. presidential election, which takes place in 2016, or midterm congressional elections scheduled in 2018.