USA Freedom Act’s Biggest Obstacle in Senate Comes from Staunch Privacy Advocates

As Congress enters the so-called lame duck session, certain bills are likely to come up for a debate and vote while political repercussions are at their lowest. However, when it comes to one purportedly anti-surveillance bill, opposition may be fierce.

In 2013, privacy advocates praised the drafting of the USA Freedom Act for reining in the abuses of the national security state. The original bill was designed to ban the surveillance program that collects records on Americans’ phone calls and online communication.

The bill had stalled in the Senate, but on Wednesday, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture on the bill and debate might begin this week. Although original backers of the bill support it as a step in the right direction, subsequent changes have irked several proponents of curbing the National Security Agency (NSA) and data collection.

An aide to Senator Rand Paul, long a foe of the NSA, announced late last week that the senator was planning on opposing the bill. In addition to not taking reforms far enough, Paul is upset that the USA Freedom Act would extend provisions of the Patriot Act through December 2017 that were scheduled to sunset in June 2015.

In addition to Paul, blogger Marcy Wheeler wrote against the passage of the bill. An independent journalist focusing on national security and civil liberties, Wheeler wrote that the USA Freedom Act still has so many loopholes that its reforms are marginal at best and counterproductive at worst. Although communication dragnets are eliminated by the bill, other programs that are considered “bulky,” but not “bulk,” are exempt. This could include financial dragnets.

The USA Freedom Act as it is currently written still has significant bipartisan support. Republicans Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Dick Durbin support the bill. However, if Paul’s opposition can lead to procedural inertia, the bill might die without a vote. Paul might also find an ally in outgoing Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. Another advocate for civil liberties, Udall railed against the weakening of the original law, stating that the Senate needed to return to the original version:

“…which clearly ends bulk collection and which includes more aggressive steps to protect Americans’ privacy, such as important provisions to safeguard Americans from warrantless, backdoor searches of their private communications.”

A version of the USA Freedom Act passed the House in May, but was also criticized by its original supporters for being a watered down version.