USA Freedom Act Fails to Advance in U.S. Senate

Late Tuesday, the Senate voted against debating the USA Freedom Act of 2014. The legislation failed to garner 60 votes — the threshold necessary for cloture. The final vote was 58 in favor to 42 opposed.

The bill was lauded by supporters as an attempt to reign in the expansive surveillance programs of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The USA Freedom Act was first introduced by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in 2013 and went through several changes in the U.S. House before it passed the lower chamber 303-121 in May 2014. While the current iteration that was voted on by the Senate differs from the original bill, advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) pushed for its passage.

The EFF released a statement after the vote Tuesday, saying:

We are disappointed that the Senate has failed to advance the USA Freedom Act, a good start for bipartisan surveillance reform that should have passed the Senate.

One faction of detractors argued it didn’t go far enough in protecting personal privacy and even extends certain provisions in the Patriot Act. Issues like roving wire taps, the lone wolf provision, and additional proposed reforms did not go far enough to address fundamental privacy concerns. Still others, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, argue it presents a threat to national security.

On the Senate floor, Mitch McConnell made a statement opposing the USA Freedom Act, urging Republicans to strike down consideration for debate on the grounds that the legislation would damage America’s ability to gather intelligence on terrorist threats. In the wake of the beheading of U.S. citizen Peter Kassig, McConnell said:

“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs. The threat from ISIL is real. It’s different from what we’ve faced before. And if we’re going to overcome it — if our aim is to degrade and destroy ISIL, as the president has said — then that’s going to require smart policies and firm determination.”

Although surveillance reform appears to be at an end for the 113th Congress, privacy advocates have vowed to return to the issue in 2015.
A central provision of the act was one that would end mass collection of call metadata by reforming Section 215 of the Patriot Act. According to the EFF, Section 215 of the Patriot Act has been used by the NSA “to collect the calling information of every American.” In its current form, the USA Freedom Act would help end this bulk collection of phone records.

In addition to these reforms, the USA Freedom Act would mandate reforms for the FISA Court process by creating 5 special advocacy attorneys to “advocate in support of legal interpretations that advance individual privacy and civil liberty.”

Under this bill, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would have been required to consult the attorney general in declassifying consequential court opinions.  Furthermore, the USA Freedom Act would demand more transparency on behalf of the U.S. government — “including a requirement that the government estimate how many U.S. persons have been affected by backdoor warrantless searches of information,” according to the EFF.

Imperfect as it may have been, several tech related companies supported the USA Freedom Act. AOL, Apple, Dropbox, Microsoft, Evernote, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yahoo wrote an open letter of support to the U.S. Senate. The letter says:

“We urge you to pass the bill, ‪which both protects national security and reaffirms America’s commitment to the freedoms we all cherish.”

Although surveillance reform appears to be at an end for the 113th Congress, privacy advocates have vowed to return to the issue in 2015. Whether or not the USA Freedom Act will re-emerge in another form has yet to be seen.

Did The Bill Go Far Enough?

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

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Image Source: National Review