In the years following Edward Snowden’s leaks from the National Security Agency, the agency has continued operating its surveillance program. The only difference is that the public is aware of what it is doing.
When it comes to making reforms to the program through legislation, little has been accomplished. The impending June 1 expiration date of Section 215 the Patriot Act has re-introduced the debate of NSA reform in Washington, leaving politicians scrambling to find a solution. Section 215 is the provision the government uses to justify the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records.
One of the major political stories this week was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s 10-hour filibuster on the Senate floor in opposition to the NSA spying program. Although some have criticized Paul for using the filibuster as a way to attract attention for his presidential campaign, his efforts may lead to actual results.
If the Senate fails to pass the House-backed USA Freedom Act before this weekend’s recess, the government’s phone record collection program would be phased out over a six-month period. Although Paul opposes the NSA spying program outright, he also has concerns with the USA Freedom Act.
“I sued the NSA,” Paul said, reports CBS News. “I’m a leader in trying to stop this. My bill would end it, and not replace it. The USA Freedom Act ends it, but then replaces it with another program."
While Paul views the USA Freedom Act as not doing enough to end mass surveillance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell believes it would do too much. A major reason the USA Freedom Act has not passed the Senate is due to McConnell’s opposition. Instead, McConnell is calling for a two-month extension of the status quo, giving legislators more time to work out a compromise.
“We need to recognize that terrorist tactics and the nature of the threat have changed,” McConnell said, reported Politico. “At a moment of elevated threat, it would be a mistake to take from our intelligence community any — any — of the valuable tools needed to build a complete picture of terrorist networks and their plans, such as the bulk data collection program.”
According to the National Journal, White House press secretary Josh Earnest referred to the failure of McConnell and the Senate to act on the bill as “grossly irresponsible.”
“The fact is we have people in the U.S. Senate right now who are playing chicken with this,” said Earnest. “They are in a situation where they’re going to try to do a two-week extension or a short-term extension on these critical national security authorities, and to play chicken with that is grossly irresponsible.”
Earnest also claimed there will be national security risks if the bill does not pass. “The refusal of the Senate to consider this legislation in a similar bipartisan spirit puts at risk not just the bipartisan compromise, but it puts the risk of our national security professionals to keep us safe. There is no plan B,” Earnest said.
The problem with the NSA reform is that it’s not as simple as the bipartisan debate which Earnest describes. The Obama Administration and the House both support the USA Freedom Act — legislation which makes some reform to NSA spying methods but would effectively allow government surveillance to continue. Libertarians like Paul and more progressive Democrats are in favor of enacting more sweeping reforms or getting rid of NSA spying altogether. Traditional Republicans like McConnell don’t want to see any reforms to the surveillance program, which they view as essential to fighting the War on Terror.
Given all of this disagreement, McConnell has a point when he calls for an extension of the current law. That would give more time for legislators to work towards compromise on reform, rather than simply pushing through the USA Freedom Act or letting Section 215 expire altogether.
The reality, of course, is that legislators have had more than enough time to grapple with the issues surrounding NSA spying and national security. Neither extending the status quo of Section 215 nor passing the USA Freedom Act will lead to the true reform that Snowden and much of the U.S. public desires.
Extending deadlines in Congress has become a painfully familiar habit, and it's hard to imagine any different outcomes occurring in the future. It’s unlikely that legislators won’t be able to work something out before the deadline — but the ideal solution would be for Section 215 to expire. If Congress needs more time to debate the issue, it shouldn’t be allowed to prolong the laws that members are working towards reforming.
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