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Patriot Act Renewal Sneaks Through Congress With BOTH Democratic And Republic Support

The Patriot Act originally included authorization of indefinite detentions of immigrants, permission for law enforcement agencies to search a home or business without the occupant’s or owner’s consent, and permission for the FBI and NSA to search telephone, email, and financial records without a court order. Since its passage, many of its main provisions have been declared unconstitutional. However, a key controversial section, number 215 remains in place, which allows the government to collect phone metadata without court authorization. Patriot Act Renewal Sneaks Through Congress With BOTH Democratic And Republic Support

Joining me now to discuss the significance of the Patriot Act renewal is Evan Greer. She’s deputy director of the organization Fight for Our Future.

Thanks for joining us today.

EVAN GREER: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So the Patriot Act was originally supposed to be in place for only four years, until 2005, but it has been extended for another four or five years almost every time it expired. First, under President George W. Bush, and then under President Barack Obama. Now, this time it’s being extended for another three months. How big a problem, would you say, is this renewal?

EVAN GREER: This is really a huge issue. And it’s really disappointing that this is the point that we’ve gotten to. These authorities never should have been passed in the first place. The Patriot Act was rushed through Congress with really no consideration for the way that it undermined basic civil liberties. This is one of the worst laws ever passed in U.S. history. And it enables government surveillance at a scale that was previously impossible.

This three month renewal is really just kicking the can down the road, but what’s problematic about that is that it really takes the pressure off of especially Senate leadership and Mitch McConnell to do anything meaningful to reform this bill. This is really the Democrats signaling, “Yeah, you know, we don’t care that much about this. We’re just going to kick the can down the road,” instead of standing firm and saying, “Look, if you want to reauthorize this legislation you need to fix the gaping loopholes, you need to address the widespread abuses of this authority that has been used to violate people’s constitutional and human rights now for years and years, as you said.

GREG WILPERT: Now, several times, recently, the NSA actually requested data on a limited number of citizens because the law has become a little bit narrower than it was originally set up, but it then ends up receiving hundreds of millions of records from the phone companies. For example, the NSA obtained orders to target 40 suspects in 2018, but it ended up collecting 534 million records according to an inspector general report, which then also concluded that such massive data collection’s actually useless. But still, the Trump administration and Democrats keep on wanting to renew the law. Why do you think that is?

EVAN GREER: It’s really from pressure from the intelligence community. Once government agencies have any type of power, they always are going to demand to keep that power; and in fact, to expand that power. And that’s why it’s so essential that we hold our elected officials accountable. I want to underline something that you said there, which is that this mass data collection–not only is it invasive, not only does it violate our rights, it doesn’t even do what the government says it’s trying to do.

The U.S. government’s mass surveillance programs have never successfully prevented a violent attack. They’ve never saved anyone’s life. They’re not keeping us safe. This type of automated widespread dragnet surveillance isn’t particularly useful for enhancing public safety, but perfect for authoritarian control, for social control, for behavior control. This isn’t about keeping us safe. It’s about keeping us in line.

GREG WILPERT: Now, what would you recommend to people who are opposed to this extension of the U.S. government’s ability to engage in warrantless surveillance? I mean, what do you recommend that they do in order to stop it?

EVAN GREER: Sure. So, in an immediate way, this bill–the continuing resolution, this pending bill–is coming up for a vote, literally potentially as we speak right now. Everyone should contact their representatives and tell them to vote against it and to make it clear that they’re voting against it because it includes a reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Our position is that these authorities never should have been granted in the first place. They shouldn’t be reauthorized for one more day, much less three more months, and certainly not beyond that. Everyone needs to recognize that this is an issue that’s not going to get solved overnight.

So beyond contacting your representatives today, I strongly recommend that you get in touch with, follow, become a member of organizations that are actively fighting against expanded government surveillance. My organization, Fight for the Future, is one, Free Press, Demand Progress are out there doing important work, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, and many others. As well as Media Justice, Color of Change, Racial Justice and immigration groups have been opposing this. So get involved with some of the organizations that are fighting government surveillance, and overly broad government surveillance, because this is a moment where we need to draw a line in the sand. Democratic leadership are increasingly becoming more and more friendly to surveillance.

As the Democratic Party really tries to present itself as the party of national security, which frankly is extremely dangerous, from my perspective, we’re seeing an erosion of willingness among Democrats to fight for policies that protect our basic rights and civil liberties. So we can’t allow that to happen. We, as a progressive movement, need to fight to ensure that leadership in Congress, from both sides of the aisle, fight for meaningful reform and reign in these government surveillance programs that are ineffective, a waste of money, and a huge invasion of our privacy, civil and human rights.

Updated: 12-6-2019

NSA Phone Surveillance Program Faces an End as Parties Come Together

Onetime supporters say the call-detail program, hobbled by changes, no longer offers major national-security value.

Senior Republicans and Democrats in Congress have said they support terminating the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance tool that collects information about U.S. phone calls and text messages, in opposition to a Trump administration push to preserve the program.

The growing consensus to let the once-secret program lapse marks a significant shift from four years ago, when lawmakers voted by wide margins on both sides of the aisle to renew it—with limitations.

The change in mood has also emboldened advocates of greater privacy protections in Congress to pursue additional changes to U.S. surveillance laws, which have come under intense political scrutiny during President Trump’s time in office.

In perhaps the surest sign yet that Congress is willing to part with the surveillance program, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the intelligence tool no longer provided sufficient national security value to justify its extension, a change in his position from earlier this year.

Mr. Burr and the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, introduced a bill last month that would end the metadata program, while preserving other expiring surveillance initiatives for an additional eight years.

Set up clandestinely shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the call-detail records program, as it is known within the intelligence community, was intended to collect the metadata of all domestic calls in the U.S. to hunt for links between potential associates of terrorism suspects. Metadata includes the numbers and time stamps of a call or text message but not the contents of the conversation.

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked the existence of the program—along with a trove of documents exposing other surveillance operations carried out by the NSA—to journalists more than six years ago, prompting international fury about the scope of American surveillance activities.

Following Mr. Snowden’s 2013 disclosures, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015, requiring the NSA to replace its bulk-metadata program with a pared down system under which call records are retained by telephone companies.

But that replacement program has encountered repeated legal and technical challenges, which prompted the NSA to make an unusual decision last year to suspend its use and to purge the telephone records it had obtained with the program since 2015.

Former intelligence officials have also conceded that the program still poses a public relations liability—reminding the nation of the scrutiny resulting from Mr. Snowden’s actions—at a time when the agency has sought to become more transparent, particularly with the launch this year of a new cybersecurity directorate.

“I’ve said before that allowing the call-detail record program to expire wasn’t something I was prepared to take lightly,” Mr. Burr said in a statement to the Journal. “That remains the case. After speaking with intelligence and law-enforcement officials, it’s become clear that changes to the program under the USA Freedom Act have significantly weakened its usefulness. In its current incarnation, the [call-detail record] program simply doesn’t provide enough value to justify jeopardizing other critical intelligence tools.”

The NSA declined to comment. In public testimony to both the Senate and House of Representatives in recent months, Susan Morgan, an NSA official, said the agency wanted to preserve the legal authority to keep the program running because technological changes could make it valuable in the future. But that defense was met with forceful skepticism from lawmakers in both parties and Ms. Morgan was unable to point to any examples of the tool aiding terrorism investigations.

Privacy advocates said the shifting stances in Congress—and particularly Mr. Burr’s reversal—vindicated their views.

“That even the greatest apologists for mass surveillance in Congress are now abandoning its most indefensible incarnations as ineffective and excessive is of historic significance,” Mr. Snowden said Thursday on Twitter. “It marks the beginning of the long road to real reform.”

Ignoring the obstacles and a desire from some current and former intelligence officials to jettison the program, the Trump administration said in August that it wanted Congress to permanently renew the NSA initiative despite its faulty performance.

Last month, Congress passed a short-term spending resolution to keep the government funded through Dec. 20, which included a provision that extends by 90 days surveillance provisions due to expire before the end of the year. The move was intended to afford more time to lawmakers sidetracked by the House impeachment inquiry to craft legislation that would end the phone metadata program. It was also aimed at giving members of Congress the opportunity to consider other potential surveillance reforms, such as limiting law enforcement’s ability to obtain business records without a warrant.

Mr. Burr, for years among the most vociferous defenders in Congress of the metadata program, said his support for ending it now was intended to ward off other potential changes to the expiring surveillance initiatives. But privacy advocates said they were eager to push for additional changes.

“The demise of the NSA’s sprawling phone surveillance program is long overdue, but this bill falls far short when it comes to reforming the Patriot Act to protect Americans’ rights,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) said.

Mr. Wyden said he planned to introduce his own legislation next week with bipartisan backing that would prohibit certain location-tracking surveillance activities and require more transparency about intelligence agencies.


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