Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., may have overplayed his hand. While calling for no reform – in contrast with the executive branch – to the secret, mass surveillance of Americans conducted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, he’s pushed the Senate into an extremely awkward position: Pass USA FREEDOM Act (as passed in the House), pass his 2-month “clean” reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act or pass his 5-year “clean” reauthorization. If none of that happens, Section 215 and two other portions of the PATRIOT Act sunset, which many think is the preferable option.
On top of the looming time crunch (Section 215 sunsets when the clock strikes June 1), 60 representatives just signaled that the bar for reform is too low, that it must be raised and that clean reauthorization is not an option – at least for them. The lawmakers are led by two of the strongest and most influential surveillance reformers in Congress – Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Lewis, D-Ala. And all 60 can prove they won’t accept Senate inaction or weakness on this issue: They are all among the 88 representatives who already voted against the USA FREEDOM Act. And they voted “nay” because it was too weak, not too strong. (I suspect the remaining 28, or at least 27 of them, are actually on the same page, but that there wasn’t time to get everyone onboard.)
McConnell’s calculus may have worked until two weeks ago, but once the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled the government’s interpretation of “relevance” under Section 215 unlawful, one of the major goals of the USA FREEDOM Act already seemed to have been accomplished. Bulk collection, according to them, isn’t authorized by law.
And with that change, many organizations shifted. The EFF joined the ACLU in pulling support from the bill (the latter already did so earlier this year). Since it was weakened last year, Sunlight has opposed the USA FREEDOM Act as an over-compromise at best, a net negative at worst.
If Amash, Lewis and the other 58 House members are correct – that there is no place for reauthorization in the House, and that even the current reform package, USA FREEDOM Act, is too weak – even a “victory” for McConnell will turn into sunset of Section 215.
Check out the letter below, and if you’d like to get engaged, check out these tools that Fight for the Future put together. Here’s a discussion of USA FREEDOM, and a quick look at where members of Congress stand on surveillance. Both give you the chance to contact Congress – and if there was ever a time to voice yourself on these issues, now is the time.
Here’s the letter Amash, Lewis, and 58 others sent to the Senate: