Surveillance Hawks in Senate Block USA FREEDOM Act Surveillance Reform Bill

Vote Against Reform Is Ironically Likely to Lead to Expiration of Key Spying Powers
Press Release
May 23, 2015

Washington, DC Shortly after midnight this morning, Senators intent on preserving the NSA’s ability to spy on millions of innocent Americans blocked movement of the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R. 2048), the same surveillance reform bill that the House passed last week by an overwhelming vote of 338 to 88. The bill failed on a procedural vote of 57 yeas to 42 nays, falling short of the sixty votes necessary for it to proceed. However, the pro-surveillance bloc in the stalemated Senate also failed to move forward with its own bill to renew for two months USA PATRIOT Act Section 215, the law that is being used to justify the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records and that is set to expire or “sunset” at midnight the morning of June 1. That bill also failed on a procedural vote, 45 yeas to 54 nays. The Senate now plans to reconvene on May 31 to reconsider the issue one more time before the June 1 deadline.

The surveillance hawks’ victory against USA FREEDOM is likely a pyrrhic one. The House has left for the Memorial Day holiday and is not currently planning to be in session again until June 1. Therefore, the USA FREEDOM bill which would have reformed Section 215 to end the NSA’s indiscriminate bulk collection of Americans’ phone records that was just held to be illegal by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was and is likely still the Senate’s only option if it wants to prevent Section 215 from expiring. The NSA indicated earlier this week that it would begin winding down the program today in anticipation of the sunset, if the House and Senate did not agree on USA FREEDOM by the weekend.

In addition to the broad bipartisan support evidenced by the House, USA FREEDOM is endorsed by the White House and the Intelligence Community, and supported by a broad coalition of privacy and advocacy groups, trade associations, and Internet companies, including the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes major tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. New America’s Open Technology Institute has long supported the USA FREEDOM Act as a critical first step toward reining in the National Security Agency’s overreaching mass surveillance program.

The following statement can be attributed to Kevin Bankston, Policy Director of New America’s Open Technology Institute:

“It is a shocking insult to the democratic process, and to the American people who have been demanding reform for two years, that the Senate’s leaders have ignored the White House, federal judges, and an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives by blocking the USA FREEDOM Act. It’s all the more shameful that they succeeded by using blatant fear-mongering, lies and half-truths to frighten members away from voting for a surveillance reform bill that the NSA itself believes is a reasonable compromise that will preserve both Americans’ privacy and their security.

“However, the surveillance hawks have seriously overplayed their hand. Ironically, it appears that the surveillance boosters unreasonable dedication to the NSA’s bulk collection program is what may doom it in the end and give new leverage to surveillance reformers. By voting down USA FREEDOM, they may have also lost their best chance at avoiding the sunset of PATRIOT Section 215 on June 1. At this point, nothing can happen without the House and Senate agreeing, and the House has made clear it does not intend to get steamrolled by the Senate on this issue.

“The Senate will have one more chance to reverse today’s mistake and pass USA FREEDOM. But assuming Section 215 does sunset, there will be enormous pressure on the House to work with the Senate to renew it as soon as possible. It’s now up to the House to stand firm and refuse to pass any bill that is weaker than USA FREEDOM.

“If Senate Leader McConnell and others who voted against this bill believe their own fear-mongering, then they have just left the American people vulnerable by pushing us to the brink of sunset. The House made clear in an overwhelming vote that it was willing to renew the expiring surveillance provisions in exchange for the reasonable reforms of the USA FREEDOM Act. The House did its job; the Senate still has not. So if PATRIOT Section 215 expires, the surveillance hawks will have no one to blame but themselves.”