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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks during a news conference following a weekly policy luncheon on April 2, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Senate Leadership Is Pushing Through a Dangerous Surveillance Bill as Americans Are Focused on Covid-19

If McConnell's push through the Senate succeeds, it would renew the government’s power to warrantlessly acquire billions of data points on every person in the United States. These are terrifying powers to hand to President Trump.

Sandra Fulton

On Monday evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to push through a vote on the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2020, legislation that would reauthorize abusive government spying powers that expired yesterday, Sunday, March 15.

The Act passed the House late last week, but with significant bipartisan opposition from civil-liberties champions in Congress and from leading privacy, racial-justice and constitutional-rights groups, including my group Free Press Action.

If signed by President Trump, the bill would reauthorize Section 215 powers Congress established under the USA Patriot Act in 2001. Section 215 is the provision national-security agencies cited in the past to support their unwarranted collection of phone records of hundreds of millions of innocent people in the United States.

"It's unthinkable to extend these spying powers to the same agencies that have so often sidestepped safeguards and ignored Americans' fundamental privacy rights."

In the House, a bipartisan group of representatives called for meaningful reforms to federal spying powers, including Section 215. Democrats and Republicans who voted against the bill—and even some who voted for it—joined together to say that this legislation didn’t do enough to protect everyone’s privacy rights.

Yet in the Senate, Majority Leader McConnell has prevented Sens. Steve Daines (R-MT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and others from offering any amendments that would protect the privacy rights of Americans. Opposition to this legislation is gaining momentum, which is why McConnell is pushing so aggressively for a vote today while so much of the nation is focused on the coronavirus crisis.

And while the  bill makes some minor reforms, they are insufficient. The USA Freedom Reauthorization Act fails to put in place stronger reforms favored by privacy, racial-justice and civil-liberty advocates, most of whom support an alternative bill, the Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act, introduced earlier this year with bipartisan support. 

Where reforms are incorporated into the Reauthorization Act, they are primarily half-measures that leave huge loopholes that can be easily exploited by spying agencies. The bill includes symbolic provisions specifically tailored to address issues raised by the surveillance of Trump aide Carter Page, it bizarrely fails to extend those protections to everyone else living in America. And while the bill prevents the government from collecting location information without a warrant, it leaves other highly sensitive information, like internet browsing and search history, vulnerable to invasive government spying without a warrant.

When the bill arrived on the Senate floor last Thursday, opponents asked to offer and debate privacy-protecting amendments. But McConnell is blocking any amendments or alternative bills. We saw similar efforts to silence dissent and debate when the House Judiciary Committee cancelled a markup of the bill and rushed it through a floor vote after Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) tried to offer pro-privacy amendments.

If McConnell’s push through the Senate succeeds, it would renew the government’s power to warrantlessly acquire billions of data points on every person in the United States. These are terrifying powers to hand to President Trump, considering his record of surveilling and abusing marginalized communities—but as we’ve seen, even some of the president’s supporters have complained that these overbroad powers were used against the Trump campaign, too.

Congress has had almost five years to prepare for this debate, yet once again leadership attempted instead to rush something through, this time in the middle of a national health emergency. The PATRIOT Act has been misused and abused time and time again, and The USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020 does not do enough to rein in the government. Senators concerned with the civil liberties of their constituents deserve the opportunity to challenge the legitimacy of such massive spying programs.

It’s unthinkable to extend these spying powers to the same agencies that have so often sidestepped safeguards and ignored Americans’ fundamental privacy rights. Every senator should vote against the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act and demand more reforms and restrictions to curb runaway government surveillance.


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Sandra Fulton

Sandra Fulton

Sandra Fulton is the government relations director for Free Press Action.

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