Bill Designed to Curb NSA Domestic Surveillance Goes Down in Senate

Despite agreement among civil liberty groups and privacy advocates that "imperfect" bill represented strongest set of reform yet on domestic surveillance, the USA Freedom Act was defeated in the Senate on Tuesday night. (Image: EFF/flickr/cc)

Bill Designed to Curb NSA Domestic Surveillance Goes Down in Senate

Strongest legislative effort yet defeated by lawmakers, many of whom used the threat of foreign terrorists to defend the need for mass surveillance without oversight

A cloture vote in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night failed to get the necessary 60 votes needed to move forward the USA Freedom Act, sending the bill, which privacy and civil liberties advocates called the strongest attempt yet to rein in National Security Agency surveillance in the wake of revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden, down in failure.

Writing for The Intercept, Dan Froomkin described how Republican members of Senate used hype and the rhetoric of fear surrounding foreign terrorist organizations in their ultimately successful bid to kill the legislation:

Senate Republicans, ratcheting up their rhetoric about the threat posed by the Islamic State, on Tuesday night sank the only significant legislative attempt to rein in the National Security Agency in the nearly year and a half since American citizens first learned they were being spied on by their own government.

The procedural vote to move forward on the USA Freedom Act required 60 votes. It received 58. All but one Democrat and four libertarian-leaning Republicans voted in favor of the bill. The rest of the Republicans -- including libertarian firebrand Rand Paul (R-Ky.) -- voted against, along with Florida Democrat Bill Nelson. (Here's the rollcall of the vote.)

During a brief debate before the vote, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss warned that members of the Islamic State "want people to walk the streets of New York... and start killing people." And, displaying either a real or feigned ignorance of the extraordinary latitude the NSA will continue to enjoy when it comes to spying on international communications, he suggested that the bulk collection of domestic phone records was necessary to ferret out such plans. (Watch video of the debate.)

In response to the failed cloture vote, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had cautiously endorsed Leahy's bill, released this statement:

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.

The Senate still has the remainder of the current legislative session to pass the USA Freedom Act. We continue to urge the Senate to do so and only support amendments that will make it stronger. We strongly oppose any amendment that would water down the strong privacy, special advocate, and transparency provisions of the bill.

We also urge the Senate to remember that the USA Freedom Act is a first step in comprehensive surveillance reform. Future reform must include significant changes to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, to the operations of Executive Order 12333, and to the broken classification system that the executive branch counts on to hide unconstitutional surveillance from the public.

At the Huffington Post, Ryan Grim and Matt Sledge report on how Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a champion of libertarians, refused to vote in favor of the measure despite its strengths in curbing some of the worst practices used by the NSA to spy on American citizens unimpeded.

While Paul said he "felt bad" that the bill failed, because it "probably needed my vote," he also claimed the country was "one step closer to restoring civil liberties," because the Patriot Act provision's expiration date will not be extended.

Paul's bedfellows on the vote to kill NSA reform made doomsaying predictions on the Senate floor, saying the legislation would allow Islamic State terrorists to perpetrate another 9/11.

Leahy pleaded with those who had concerns about the bill to allow it to proceed past Tuesday's cloture vote and try to fix it through amendments. But Paul ignored him, essentially cutting himself off from the chance to add an amendment. NSA reform's next stop is May 2015 -- the Patriot Act provision's original expiration date.

It's unclear what will happen then. Civil libertarians saw the bill as their best chance at reform before a GOP majority led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who lashed out Tuesday about the reform bill and the process shepherded by current Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). McConnell's vote against cloture meant he also lost his chance to amend the bill, even though he has repeatedly complained about Reid closing off the amendment process.

The motives of McConnell and Paul may differ -- but Paul's vote against the reform bill conveniently aligns him with the powerful incoming Senate majority leader.

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