The current "gutted" version of the U.S.A. Freedom Act (S. 2685) will only serve to legalize government's currently illegal surveillance of innocent civilians, charged a coalition of whistleblowers and civil liberties organizations in a letter published Monday calling on members of Congress to reject the empty reform.
"Governmental security agencies' zeal for collecting Americans' personal information without regard for cost, efficacy, legality, or public support necessitates that Congress act to protect the rights of residents across the United States and around the globe," writes the group under the banner of the OffNow campaign. The letter is signed by a number of intelligence community whistleblowers, including Thomas Drake and Daniel Ellsburg, as well as over 15 publications and organizations, such as RootsAction.org, CREDO Action, Fight for the Future, Restore the Fourth and the Sunlight Foundation.
The U.S.A. Freedom Act, they charge, "is not the substantive reform originally envisioned and supported by the public" after it was introduced to both houses by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in October 2013. In late May, H.R 3361 passed the House of Representatives—after being heavily marked up by the House Judiciary subcommittee—and moved on to the Senate where it has languished in the Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
In its current form, the group says that the legislation now threatens to embolden the same violations it alleges to deter and has numerous ambiguities which make it "ripe for abuse."
The Act, they write, "legalizes currently illegal surveillance activities, grants immunity to corporations that collaborate to violate privacy rights, reauthorizes the PATRIOT Act for an additional 2.5 years, and fails to reform EO 12333 or Section 702, other authorities used to collect large amounts of information on Americans."
For some civil liberties groups, including the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, the bill is a "modest step forward." However, Sean Vitka, federal policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation writes in a blog post that despite its meager reforms, the legislation has "extraordinary potential to create a misleading view of what is going on behind closed doors and in secret courts."
"The Intelligence Community’s past approach to ambiguous and weak laws underscore that this one threatens to do more harm than good," Vitka argues.