Senate Blocks Vote on Bipartisan Surveillance Reform

On November 18, the Senate failed to advance bipartisan surveillance reform legislation.  Supporters of the USA Freedom Act came up two votes short on an effort to allow floor debate of the bill, a procedural motion that required 60 votes to pass.

“It is unfortunate that the Senate did not allow this important and widely supported legislation to come to a vote,” said Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project, in a press release.  She said that “the bill was an important step forward that was supported by technology and communications companies, privacy and civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum, as well as the Obama administration and the intelligence community.”

USA Freedom Act (S. 2685), authored chiefly by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),  is a compromise version  of legislation aimed at curbing the dragnet collection of millions of telephone records by the National Security Agency and providing greater transparency of policies underlying government surveillance programs, in part by allowing the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to appoint a special advocate to represent privacy concerns whenever it considers cases presenting “a novel or significant interpretation of the law.”  The extent to which the NSA was collecting information on domestic telephone calls came to light last year as a result of classified documents Edward Snowden supplied to the media.

The legislation was endorsed by the Obama administration, the intelligence community and key stakeholders in the private sector, including TCP.  According to Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, this bill would preserve essential surveillance capabilities while providing appropriate privacy protections and eliminating unnecessary bulk collection of phone records.  TCP released a report earlier in the year that recommended the creation of a special advocate as a necessary component of any surveillance reform.

The House passed its version of the legislation in May.  At the time, TCP and other privacy advocates urged the Senate to improve certain provisions during its consideration of the bill.  The decision against proceeding almost certainly means that legislative efforts to reform surveillance laws will have to wait until the next Congress.  The key provision of the USA Patriot Act that enables the intelligence community to gather data for counterterrorism purposes will expire on June 1 unless Congress renews it.

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