A part of the Patriot Act has expired, but it is bound to be quickly replaced by the Freedom Act, which is stuck in the Senate. For many, it won’t stop mass surveillance in the U.S. or internationally.
A part of the Patriot Act, a controversial and far-reaching law adopted the day after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, expired this past Sunday, May 31, at midnight, Washington time.
Among the few sections that have been eliminated is one of the more sensitive: Section 215. By authority of this section, the American intelligence service collected and stored massive amounts of data from the telephone communications of millions of Americans. This practice, explained in Edward Snowden’s first disclosures in June 2013, was recently ruled illegal by an American court.
But even if the National Security Agency has disconnected some of its servers, the elimination of a part of the Patriot Act does not signify the end of American surveillance. Far from it: For the White House, backed by a number of elected representatives, it’s out of the question to let the program end without a replacement. A new law, the USA Freedom Act, was approved a few days ago by the House of Representatives. But this plan remains criticized, especially by the Senate, which is blocking its enactment. For many, this bill doesn’t go far enough and does not prevent mass surveillance on American soil — and even less so internationally.
In a special meeting on Sunday, the senators once again failed to find a compromise on surveillance programs. All this, in a heated atmosphere, goes beyond the confines of Congress, Washington and all the political parties.
A Question that Transcends Political Parties
As in France with its Bill on Intelligence, the Patriot Act and the new Freedom Act are causing division within the parties. The opposition to mass surveillance, as well as the call to strengthen the control of intelligence services, is in fact not a matter of the classical political divide. This is complicating things considerably.
It’s particularly visible on the Republican side, which has control over Congress. The New York Times writes that three of the presidential contenders have sometimes radically different positions on the subject.
Even more emblematic is the fact that Rand Paul made it a cornerstone of his platform. This libertarian is strongly opposed to the monitoring devices of the NSA: A few days ago, he spoke for 10 hours in order to oppose the renewal of the Patriot Act in the Senate!
Assisted in the task by 10 Democrats, Rand Paul faces Republicans who want to keep the law the way it is, while others support the prolongment of the program in order to pursue debates with the end goal of adopting the Freedom Act.
Among them is Republican Mitch McConnell, majority leader of the Senate, who has failed to impose his views. In addition to rejecting the Freedom Act, the Senate has continually refused to extend the Patriot Act these past few days. They successively put to vote an extension of two months, then one week, then four days, then two, and finally arrived at 24 hours, explains the website Real Clear Politics.
“National Security Russian Roulette”
Despite these refusals, the Republican leader planned on getting back to work this Sunday, saying to his colleagues: “[We have] one more opportunity to act responsibly and not allow this program to expire. This is a high-threat period. We know what is going on overseas. We know what has been tried here at home. Do we really want this law to expire? … We better be ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from being in danger by the total expiration of the program we are all familiar with.”
He’s far from the only one to use the argument that threats could take advantage of this pause in surveillance to sneak up and attack the United States. Although the NSA has never proven the efficiency of its numerous programs, this didn’t stop an official from saying to The New York Times, “What [the senators are] doing, essentially, is playing national security Russian roulette.”
Barack Obama used that rhetoric of fear in his weekly address: “In our fight against terrorists, we need to use every effective tool at our disposal […] But tomorrow — Sunday, at midnight — some important tools we use against terrorists will expire. That’s because Congress has not renewed them, and because legislation that would — the USA Freedom Act — is stuck in the Senate.”
“The Free-dumb Act”
In order to make the pill easier to swallow, Barack Obama is presenting the Freedom Act as a Patriot Act free of the problems Snowden revealed. According to its supporters, it would be impossible for the government to store the telephone data of Americans.
Critics of the text shoot back that this surveillance will in no way end. This is particularly true for international phone taps, which are not affected by the current developments, but it’s also true in the United States: The phone companies, which have up to now cooperated with the American administration, will continue the mass storage of their clients’ data. The New York Times, which favors the death of the Patriot Act, sums up: “For the NSA, which has been internally questioning the cost effectiveness of bulk collection for years, the bill would make the agency’s searches somewhat less efficient, but it would not wipe them out.”
For three former NSA agents, also whistleblowers, this means that the Freedom Act won’t change anything. In U.S. News & World Report, William Binney, a former crypto-mathematician for the agency, says sarcastically, “Why do you think NSA [and other intelligence agencies] support it?”
Another former agent, Thomas Blake, is even calling the law “The Free-dumb Act 2.0.”
“I Feel Naked”
Still, the traditional groups protecting freedom are divided on the subject. Some are happy about certain advances, like the ability for tech companies to communicate about requests made by the intelligence agency.
But many, such as the emblematic American Civil Liberties Union, find this to be insufficient. In an interesting debate with one of its members (Jameel Jaffer), journalist Glenn Greenwald, who supported Edward Snowden, summed up, “Even if it’s a step in the right direction, it’s a very small step in the right direction.”
In order to be heard, opponents stepped up their actions. Already very involved in the debate about net neutrality, Fight for the Future is, for example, encouraging opponents of the Patriot Act to pose nude on social media under the hashtag #ifeelnaked. The group also launched the operation “Blackout Congress,” with which 15,000 sites are associated. The aim? Any connection to these sites coming from the Senate or the House of Representatives will be redirected to a page that tells the elected representatives, “We are blocking your access until you end mass surveillance laws.”