Amended USA Freedom Act draws questions from civil liberties groups

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The USA Freedom Act, introduced in to the US House of Representatives as HR 3361 and to the US Senate as S. 1599, on Thursday passed out of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and on to the House floor. Foreign Policy reported the bill was "the most aggressive NSA reform bill under consideration in Congress", however, after amendment, the bill has been questioned for extending the Patriot Act and the reduction of reform to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The USA Freedom Act had the stated goal of ending the bulk collection of Americans' metadata, ending the secret laws created by the FISA court, and introducing a "Special Advocate" to represent public and privacy matters before the FISA court.

In May 2014, the US House Judiciary Committee posted a "Manager's Amendment" on its website. Title VII of the Amendment read "Section 102(b)(1) of the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 (50 U.S.C. 1805 note) is amended by striking 'June 1, 2015' and inserting 'December 31, 2017'", extending the USA PATRIOT Act through the end of 2017. A number of organizations have taken stances against the Patriot Act, for example, the American Library Association became so concerned it urged its members to defend free speech and protect patrons' privacy against the Act.

According to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, even if the Freedom Act becomes law, the NSA could continue its bulk collection of American's phone records. He explained that "it's going to depend on how the [FISA] court interprets any number of the provisions" contained within the legislation. Jennifer Granick, Director of Civil Liberties at Stanford Law School, stated:

The Administration and the intelligence community believe they can do whatever they want, regardless of the laws Congress passes, so long they can convince one of the judges appointed to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to agree. This isn't the rule of law. This is a coup d'etat.

Cynthia Wong of Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern that "the bill does not address needed reforms to surveillance programs that affect millions of people outside US borders.” This being a key problem that plagues US surveillance activities according to HRW.

Mike Rogers, a defender of the NSA's surveillance practices and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called the proposed amendments a "huge improvement". On the other hand, USA Freedom Act co-author and Senate Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy commented that he "remain concerned that the legislation approved today does not include some of the important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the FISA Court, and greater transparency. I will continue to push for those reforms when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the USA FREEDOM Act this summer."