A law bill to reform some of the NSA's mass surveillance of innocent Americans died in the US Senate this evening.
Democrats pushing through the proposed overhaul were two votes short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster.
While the bill would not have completely dismantled the NSA's spying operations, privacy campaigners described it as "a first step." However, critics said the proposed law had been watered down to the point of simply sustaining the status quo.
“Tonight, Senate Republicans have failed to answer the call of the American people who elected them, and all of us, to stand up and to work across the aisle. Once again, they reverted to scare tactics rather than to working productively to protect Americans’ basic privacy rights and our national security,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
Senator Leahy introduced the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act (USA FREEDOM Act) in July, and it was always going to face a rocky road.
The main purpose of the bill was to limit the mass data collection on US citizens' communications by intelligence agencies, under Section 215 of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT Act).
The legislation would also curtail the use of National Security Letters, which are used by feds to investigate records of individuals held by companies, and which gag those organizations from talking about it.
Also up for reform was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which rules in secret on the legality of Uncle Sam's surveillance ops. The USA FREEDOM Act would have required some of the courts' findings to be declassified and published, and installed a citizens advocate to give privacy advice to the bench.
The bill would have also kept Section 215 alive until December 2017; that part of the law is due to expire in June 2015. Now it's up to the Republican-controlled Congress to reauthorize the section as it stands in January next year.
Clearly, some senators weren't happy with the proposed USA FREEDOM Act. Back in May, when its text was last amended, Justin Amash (R-MI) complained on Facebook:
This bill maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program. It claims to end "bulk collection" of Americans' data only in a very technical sense: The bill prohibits the government from, for example, ordering a telephone company to turn over all its call records every day.
But the bill was so weakened in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the last week that the government still can order — without probable cause — a telephone company to turn over all call records for "area code 616" or for "phone calls made east of the Mississippi." The bill green-lights the government's massive data collection activities that sweep up Americans' records in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Privacy warriors the EFF added this evening after the big vote: "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.
"We also urge the Senate to remember that the USA Freedom Act is a first step in comprehensive surveillance reform."
As for non-Americans, there was little in the legislation to cheer about. The act didn't alter policy here, so basically US spies can snoop on whomever they want for pretty much whatever reason.
The USA FREEDOM Act was very popular with technology firms, who poured lobbying dollars into the campaign. It also attracted some strange bedfellows in Washington, with hard-right Republican Ted Cruz siding with Democrats supporting the bill.
"Many months ago the American people were astonished to learn that the Federal government bulk metadata from cellphones of millions of law-abiding Americans," Cruz said in the debate.
"This legislation protects the constitutional rights of privacy under the Fourth Amendment while maintaining important tools to protect national security and law enforcement."
The final vote tally was 58 in favor of breaking the filibuster and 42 against, which wasn't enough to save the bill. It has now run out of time to be debated by the 113th Congress. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida voted against his party's whip to side with the Republicans. ®