The PATRIOT Act is a congressional law enacted under the administration of George W. Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, in the aftermath of the anthrax scare and the Sept. 11 attacks. The Act’s name is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.”
This sample essay will discuss how a decade after its passage, three provisions of the Act were extended on May 26, 2011, for another four years by President Obama. Known as the PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011, the renewed law covered business record searches, roving wiretaps, and the surveillance of individual—or “lone wolf”—terrorist suspects.
PATRIOT Act lapses; Obama signs the USA Freedom Act
Amidst mounting congressional opposition, led by libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in cooperation with Senate Democrats, attempts to renew the PATRIOT Act failed by the deadline of June 1, 2015. The following day, a new bill was passed in a 67-32 vote that renewed the lapsed parts of the Act until 2019. Now known as the USA Freedom Act, the law will no longer allow bulk data collecting of phone records by the NSA, which will now need federal permission to gain access to information about suspected individuals from phone companies.
In a statement on the matter, Obama said that the new “legislation will strengthen civil liberty safeguards and provide greater public confidence in these programs,” (Werner).
While the legislation has renewed the majority of programs that expired at the end of May, the new Act contains significant changes from the original Patriot Act; a move that analysts claim has come about due to changing views on government surveillance after Edward Snowden brought the issue into the public discourse in 2013.
Oddly, the legislation went through in a rare act of bipartisanship between Obama and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who jointly rode over the fierce opposition of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kan.) The Senate Majority leader unsuccessfully tried to get his party to renew the existing law, but fell short of the votes needed as fellow Republicans grew dissuaded in light of opposing arguments.
Calling the new legislation a “step in the wrong direction,” McConnell claimed that it “does not enhance the privacy protections of American citizens,” and that instead it “undermines American security by taking one more tool from our warfighters at exactly the wrong time,” (Werner).
The PATRIOT ACT vs. the USA Freedom Act
With the new law’s passage, the NSA will lose its ability in six-months time to hoard records of users, but the government will still be able to gain records of suspects via court orders; such info is usually kept by phone companies for a year and a half.
The new law will also extend other parts of the PATRIOT Act that are believed to be more prudent than phone data. Provisions in this category include the authorization of the FBI to collect the business records and disposed cellphones of suspected terrorists. In order for the Justice Department to regain its ability to gather phone data, it will have to seek a new order via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
Applauding the Freedom Act’s passage, Boehner said that the “legislation is critical to keeping Americans safe from terrorism and protecting their civil liberties,” (Werner).
The events of June 1-2 came after a heady week of proceedings on Capitol Hill, where Republican presidential candidate Paul broke from his party with a mini-filibuster that caused the PATRIOT Act—considered a threat to civil liberties by the libertarian—to lapse at its deadline. Joining him in a “no” vote were Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s seeking the 2016 Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton; and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who, like Paul, is one of many current GOP presidential hopefuls.
Meanwhile, the expiring legislation drew a mix of favor and ambivalence from Republican hardliners. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) voted “yes,” whereas Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)—who launched his presidential bid June 1 on the premise of being the hawkish alternative to Paul’s isolationist stance on foreign policy—was not present when the voting took place.
McConnell’s failed effort to weaken NSA reform
McConnell fought to have the PATRIOT Act renewed with all of its spying capabilities still in place, but this proved wildly unpopular across both sides of the political aisle. At a loss, the Kentucky Republican agreed to instead go with the USA Freedom Act, to which he suggested four amendments—eventually trimmed to three—devised to rectify what he considered to be “serious flaws” in the bill (Rosenthal).
Claiming that the three amendments would “erode both privacy and transparency,” Harley Geiger, Advocacy Director and Senior Counsel of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), dismissed McConnell’s proposals as “unnecessary for national security,” (Rosenthal).
On June 2, McConnell’s Senate colleagues shot down the three amendments that would have enacted the following policies:
- A delayed ending to the bulk collection of phone records – The USA Freedom Act states that bulk collection shall cease six months after the law goes into effect; McConnell sought to have that timeframe extended to 12 months.
- A one-sided FISA policy on surveillance requests by the government – When a government agency asks for surveillance rights, such requests are reviewed and usually approved by the FISA court; it’s a classified process limited to arguments by attorneys within the government. With the USA Freedom Act, each request brought before FISA will now involve arguments from an expert panel on privacy; much to the chagrin of McConnell, who wanted to maintain the old secrecy.
- A possible future crack in bulk collection reform – According to the USA Freedom Act, the practice of bulk collection is set to be jettisoned in favor of a query-based method, where phone records will only be released upon request by an intelligence agency. Set to be enacted six month after the June 2 signage of the new bill, McConnell’s proposal would have required the new method to be pre-certified during the fifth month—on grounds of national security—by the attorney general. This could have given reform-opponents a window of opportunity to renew bulk collection if doubts of any kind arose about the query-based method, or if certification was not procured.
Had any of McConnell’s amendments passed the Senate, they still would have been road kill in the House, where high-ranking Representatives Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and John Conyers (D-Ill.) jointly stated on June 1 that the House was “not likely to accept the changes proposed by Senator McConnell,” (Ehrenfreund).
Referred to by Geiger as “the most significant national security surveillance reform measure in the past three decades,” (Rosenthal), the USA Freedom Act does not have all the anti-surveillance, pro-privacy reforms that millions of Americans would have wanted, but it has been celebrated by progressives as a stinging defeat against the plutocratic aims of Mitch McConnell.
Criticism of The USA Freedom Act
The USA Freedom Act has long been the subject of skepticism among political radio pundits. On a May 21, 2014, segment of The David Pakman Show, the progressive radio host—initially keen on the bill’s prospects of ending the “warrantless bulk surveillance from the NSA and related contractors and agencies“—took issue with bipartisan agreements that had led to a watering down of some of the bill’s initial provisions. Lamenting on the bill’s then-current state, Pakman concluded that its weakening was no surprise “given the control of our government by big corporations and the influence they have over Democrats and Republicans.”
Pakman co-host Louis Motamedi argued that the bill’s name is a cause for skepticism,
“because we have things like the PATRIOT Act; the USA Freedom Act; things that don’t do anything, or actually make things worse; whereas usually when you have some type of good bill, it will have a name like Dodd-Frank or something like that,” (Pakman and Motamedi).
In light of the bill’s passage, a number of radio hosts have voiced similar criticism. RT Network’s Thom Hartmann remarked on a panel during a June 3 broadcast that the USA Freedom Act
“is just largely either a) cosmetic or b) it’s just going to mean that instead of the government gathering all of our metadata, they’re going to start paying all of the phone companies; so it’s another billion dollar subsidy to AT&T and Sprint,” (Hartmann).
Offering a rather equivocal analysis was host of The Young Turks, Cenk Uygur, who said that the new law marks…
“the first time since 9/11 that a national security law has been reigned in, as government surveillance powers have been decreased rather than increased; so that is historic.”
TYT Co-host John Iadarola had less favorable things to say, arguing that
“we went from the PATRIOT Act, which was an Orwellian piece of garbage, to the USA Freedom Act; the only thing this bill does is make it a little bit harder for them to spy on you… there’s nothing ‘freedom’ about that… they need to stop putting that [expletive] Orwellian language on these bills.”
Iadarola took particular issue with FISC provisions in the bill, which he sees as a potential loophole for anti-reformists.
Sentiments more reflective of Uygur’s could be heard on TheLipTV, where reporter Jo Ankier referred to the USA Freedom Act as
“the first step since 9/11 that loosens the intensity at which we are spying on potential terrorists,” along with a caveat that “telecommunication companies still have a lot of power, it seems, and… some Americans won’t be comfortable with that.”
Noting the sizable Republican opposition to McConnell’s amendments to the bill, co-host Jose Marcelino Ortiz surmised that Sen. Rand Paul’s libertarian leanings might finally be rubbing off on younger elected officials within the GOP (Ortiz and Ankier).
Werner, Erica. “Obama Signs Landmark USA Freedom Act on NSA Phone Records.” India West. India-West Publications, Inc. 4 June 2015. Web. 4 June 2015.
Rosenthal, Max J. “How Mitch McConnell Tried—and Failed—to Weaken NSA Reform.” Mother Jones. Foundation for National Progress. 2 June 2015. Web. 4 June 2015.
Ehrenfreund, Max. “Mitch McConnell might not be bluffing on the NSA.” The Washington Post. Nash Holdings LLC. 2 June 2015. Web. 4 June 2015.
Pakman, David and Louis Motamedi. “Anti-NSA Bill Watered Down, Now Does Very Little.” The David Pakman Show. n.p. 21 May 2014. Web. 4 June 2015.
Hartmann, Thom. “Politics Panel: Cowards! The Freedom Act is Passed.” The Big Picture RT. RT Network. 3 June 2015. Web. 4 June 2015.
Uygur, Cenk and John Iadarola. “USA Freedom Act Reduces NSA’s Spying Power.” The Young Turks. TYT Network. 3 June 2015. Web. 4 June 2015.
Ortiz, Jose Marcelino and Jo Ankier. “USA Freedom Act: Examining Government Spying Reform.” TheLipTV. n.p. 3 June 2015. Web. 4 June 2015.