History was made today, as the Senate voted 67-32 to reform a key provision of the Patriot Act by scrapping the NSA’s controversial phone metadata collection program.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could only sit and watch as three proposed amendments that his critics called poison polls withered and died. The passage of the USA Freedom Act has been a foregone conclusion for weeks, but McConnell tried to manufacture a crisis to force the passage of a full extension of some key Patriot Act spying powers. The Senate Majority Leader’s strategic blunder left him trapped in a quagmire between Rand Paul and his Democratic opponents.
The Patriot Act has long been a blight on civil liberties, but the degree of victory for NSA critics is debatable. The reforms in the USA Freedom Act are fairly modest. The metadata phone collection program is gone, but it has been replaced by the phone companies collecting the data, which only requires a warrant for a government search. It is better than nothing, but far from the sweeping reform that some are making it out to be.
It is important to remember that the data is still collected. The only difference is where it is being stored.
Senator Bernie Sanders made this point when he announced that he would be voting against the bill:
We must keep our country safe and protect ourselves from terrorists, but we can do that without undermining the constitutional and privacy rights which make us a free nation. This bill is an improvement over the USA Patriot Act but there are still too many opportunities for the government to collect information on innocent people.
This is not just the government. It’s corporate America too. Technology has significantly outpaced public policy. There is a huge amount of information being collected on our individual lives ranging from where we go to the books we buy and the magazines we read. We need to have a discussion about that.
The victory is history because it is the first one of its kind, but your data is still being collected, and it will only take a piece of paper to give the government the ability to search it. Hopefully, the USA Freedom Act is the first step towards full repeal of the Patriot Act.
Mr. Easley is the managing editor. He is also a White House Press Pool and a Congressional correspondent for PoliticusUSA. Jason has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. His graduate work focused on public policy, with a specialization in social reform movements.
Awards and Professional Memberships
Member of the Society of Professional Journalists and The American Political Science Association