As Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) introduced a bill Tuesday night that would reauthorize through 2020 a controversial Patriot Act provision allowing unwarranted government surveillance, Democratic opponents and civil liberties advocates are demanding an end to the NSA's expansive spying operations.
The provision, Section 215, which gives the NSA legal justification to conduct bulk phone records collection, is set to expire June 1.
"The Patriot Act has been at the root of many of the most serious abuses of government spying powers." —Anthony D. Romero, ACLUMcConnell's bill, co-sponsored by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), comes as a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both houses of U.S. Congress works to create legislation that would rein in the NSA's powers under Section 215.
McConnell and Burr used a Senate rule that enabled them to skip the customary committee vetting process for new legislation and take the vote on the bill straight to the Senate floor. No date for the vote has been set.
Supporters of the provision say it is useful as a counter-terrorism measure. But as the Center for Democracy and Technology points out, "Section 215 is broadly worded, covering all business records of Americans—including medical records, firearm sales records, library and book sale records, credit card purchase information, Internet behavior data, and more."
In January 2014, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and the President's Review Group determined (pdf) that the bulk collection program did not make a concrete difference in "a single instance involving a threat to the United States."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and an outspoken backer of surveillance reform, criticized McConnell's maneuver.
"Ending the bulk collection of phone records under section 215 is the first step in reforming the NSA. The time for Congress to take that step is now." —Nadia Kayyali, EFF"Republican leaders should be working across the aisle on legislation that protects both our national security and Americans' privacy rights, but instead they are trying to quietly pass a straight reauthorization of the bulk-collection program that has been proven ineffective and unnecessary," Leahy stated on Tuesday. "And more, they are attempting to do so without the committee process that the majority leader has promised for important legislation. This tone-deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance will not succeed."
Leahy's response was matched by privacy advocates, who echoed the call to let Section 215 expire and reiterated their opposition to McConnell's bill.
"The Patriot Act has been at the root of many of the most serious abuses of government spying powers," said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero. "We need to have a serious debate about the effectiveness of the Patriot Act and its implications for civil liberties. Until that happens, Congress should let Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire with the whimper it deserves."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, on Wednesday also stated its continued opposition to reauthorization of Section 215. The organization recently launched Fight215.org, a coalition with 34 other groups calling for an end to mass surveillance under the Patriot Act.
"This bill completely ignores Americans’ concerns about the erosion of constitutional protections and increasing government intrusion into their lives." —Harley Geiger, CDTEFF activist Nadia Kayyali told the Guardian on Wednesday, "Ending the bulk collection of phone records under section 215 is the first step in reforming the NSA. The time for Congress to take that step is now."
Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, stated: "The Senate Majority Leader’s bill would keep the American people under warrantless mass government surveillance. The bill makes no attempt to protect Americans’ privacy or reform ongoing NSA surveillance programs that do not provide any tangible benefit to national security."
"This bill completely ignores Americans’ concerns about the erosion of constitutional protections and increasing government intrusion into their lives," Geiger added. "Congress should act decisively to end the NSA’s bulk collection of communication records, not endorse it."