By Henry Thomas – Edited by Paulius Jurcys
USA FREEDOM Act (2013-2014)
On October 29th, 2013, the 113th Congress introduced the USA FREEDOM Act. On November 18th, 2014, a vote for cloture failed in the Senate and the bill was effectively dead.
The bill was designed to amend the Patriot Act, especially Section 215, which has been used to justify broad collection of phone “metadata.” The government’s collection of metadata (information about whom a call was placed to, but not the content of the call) came to the attention of the American public at large after the Snowden leaks revealed the practice. The Freedom Act would allow phone companies to keep control over their own metadata, and delete it at their discretion – typically after eighteen months. The federal government could still access and analyze certain metadata, but only after obtaining court approval. A somewhat watered-down version of the bill had already been approved by the House.
Introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the bill was met with broad support. President Obama, technology companies such as Google and Microsoft, and civil liberties groups like the ACLU were on board. Even the director of the NSA lent his support to the bill. However, this backing was not enough to overcome a Senate filibuster; a motion for cloture fell two votes short of the sixty needed.
The 58-42 vote mostly followed party lines. Only four Republicans voted for the bill, and only a single Democrat voted against. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) explained his hesitation toward the bill by raising the specter of an ISIL cell inside America. With America’s current metadata collection policy, “[w]e can disrupt that cell, before they can carry out a horrifying attack,” argued Rubio. Senator Leahy labeled such rhetoric as “scare tactics.”
Interestingly, more libertarian elements of the Republican Party voted against cloture as well, though for a different reason. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) cast his no vote because he felt that the act didn’t go far enough. The Freedom Act would extend, albeit in modified form, the Patriot Act for another three years. Paul opposes the Patriot Act, which is set to expire in June of 2015.
The Verge suggested that this impending deadline will result in congressional action, boldly claiming that “Congress will need to act by next June.” However, the New York Times offered a more reserved view, noting the myriad viewpoints and difficulties in obtaining broader congressional support.
Lawfare, in a detailed analysis of the Patriot Act sunset provision, raised a different hypothesis. The sunset provision allows ongoing investigations-those started before the June 1st expiry date of the Patriot Act-to continue using the tools made available by Section 215 of that act. Since virtually the entirety of the metadata corpus can be collected during a given investigation, all it would take is a single open investigation to allow the government access to the metadata. If this analysis is correct, the June 1st deadline is barely a deadline at all and “the government’s negotiating hand seems a lot stronger because its timeframe is potentially a lot longer.”
Still, even the Lawfare article concedes that the government will likely need to pass a bill in the near future. While the exact nature of an extension to the Patriot Act cannot be determined, it is all but certain that the 114th congress will be in charge of determining it.