After NSA Ruling, Congress at Odds Over Mass Surveillance

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After NSA Ruling, Congress at Odds Over Mass Surveillance

Federal court ruled on Thursday that NSA mass surveillance program, which government justified through Patriot Act provisions, is illegal

As key provisions of the Patriot Act near their expiration date, the call for stronger NSA reforms is growing. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

In the wake of Thursday's federal court ruling that the U.S. National Security Agency's mass data collection program is illegal, officials in Congress have been left at odds over surveillance reform.

In the remaining six days of the legislative session, some Senate Republicans are rushing to find a short-term solution to keep the program in operation until it comes to the floor for a vote—one which is unlikely to pass in light of the court ruling. The government previously held that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, set to expire on June 1, justified the NSA's mass surveillance of U.S. citizens.

One option would be a one-month extension of the provision to get it past the deadline in exchange for Republicans allowing a vote on the USA Freedom Act—a bill aimed at reforming the NSA by replacing surveillance programs with a plan for phone companies to retain data instead. Some in Congress see the USA Freedom Act as their best chance to rein in the NSA's spying powers.

"I hope we can [pass a clean reauthorization] for at least a short period of time just so we can have this debate," majority whip Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters. "It's an important debate and an important law, it's protected Americans and saved lives, and so we don't need to make this decision in haste."

That statement conflicted with Sen. Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) response to Thursday's court ruling, which he said should not impede a full reauthorization of the act. The provisions are "ideally suited for the terrorist threat we face in 2015," McConnell said.

However, the call to reject the Patriot Act has grown stronger, with allies from both sides of the aisle framing the court ruling as a turning point in the debate.

Even a short-term extension would amount to "reauthorizing for five years a statute that right now is deeply flawed," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told the Guardian. "It fails to protect essential rights and clearly could be improved by having an adversarial system for example, changing the makeup of the [Fisa] court, reforming the system as needs to be done."

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a presidential candidate for the 2016 election, wrote in an op-ed for Time that not even the USA Freedom Act is enough to reform the NSA and should be rejected alongside the Patriot Act. "Now that the appellate court has ruled that Section 215 doesn’t authorize bulk collection, would the USA Freedom Act actually be expanding the Patriot Act?" he wrote. "That would be a bitter irony if the attempt to end bulk collection actually gave new authority to the Patriot Act to collect records."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which brought the case to the federal court, has also noted that the USA Freedom Act does not go far enough to rein in the government's surveillance powers or ensure sufficient transparency from the FBI. "We can't help but worry that the vague language in the bill's key provisions will provide a new lease on life to surveillance programs that haven't yet been—and may never be—disclosed to the public," wrote ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer and ACLU staff attorney Patrick Toomey in a blog post last week, ahead of the ruling.

On Thursday, the ACLU called the court's decision a "resounding victory for the rule of law."

Staff attorney Alex Abdo, who argued the case, said in a statement, "For years, the government secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans based on a shockingly broad interpretation of its authority.... Mass surveillance does not make us any safer, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the privacy necessary in a free society."

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