The USA Freedom Act — a misnomer if there ever was one — was designed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to ban the ongoing and mass collection of private U.S. citizens’ data by the National Security Agency without a judicial warrant. As such, when it was introduced, it enjoyed broad support on both sides of the aisle and tacit support from the Obama administration. American citizens were, and are, rightly indignant that their government can spy on them with almost no limits or safeguards. But the Act, which was recently passed by the House, bears almost nothing in common with its original intent or language, its provisions stripped of most all critical reforms. In its gutted form, the language of the Act is a triumph of obfuscation. It no longer reflects its original purpose, and any hope Americans had that the Obama Administration would support real reform of its spying policies on citizens died with its advocacy for the evisceration of the bill. Freedom from government spying is now just part of the halcyon days of our country’s past.
The Administration and House leadership pressured and cajoled members into watering down the original bill until it bore little resemblance to its original purpose. It passed the House by a 303-121 vote, a rare triumph of bipartisanship. Few politicians could resist saying in their campaign literature that they voted for a so-called Freedom Act or risk saying they voted against it. Although a majority of both the Republicans and Democrats who sponsored the bill did in fact actually vote against it. In a press release, former co-sponsor Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) lamented:
Today was the first time since returning to Congress I voted against a bill I co-sponsored — the USA Freedom Act.
Sensenbrenner weakly defended the mangled remains of his bill in a speech on the House floor May 22:
I don’t blame people for losing trust in their government, because the government violated their trust. Let me be clear, I wish this bill did more. To my colleagues who lament changes, I agree with you. To privacy groups who are upset about lost provisions, I share your disappointment.
Justin Amash (R-MI), stated that the bill actually codifies into law practices that would legally sanction massive data-mining of Americans without a judicial warrant, probable cause or the safeguards required by the Fourth Amendment:
I was and am proud of the work our group, led by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, did to promote this legislation, as originally drafted. However, the revised bill that makes its way to the House floor this morning doesn’t look much like the Freedom Act. This morning’s bill maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program.
A coalition of tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo, warn the revised version creates an unacceptable loophole that enables the bulk collection of Internet users’ data. Probably more troubling, the revisions to Section 702 of FISA would allow the NSA to collect and review messages of phone users who do not even communicate with surveillance targets.
The new version of the Act uses undefined words such as “address” and “device,” so that any electronic means of communicating is subject to collection. Congress and the Obama administration talk a good game about ending bulk collection, but given the government’s history of twisted legal interpretations, the devious language of the final Act surely won’t protect any of our freedoms. Its title – USA Freedom Act — is nothing more than a convenient disguise for the continuing erosion of people’s privacy.
One might hope that the watered down Freedom Act that now heads to the Senate will be scrutinized more carefully by wiser heads. Don’t count on it. Senators have generally been more supportive of warrantless surveillance of Americans than their colleagues in the House.
Universal government surveillance of the American people’s electronic traffic without a warrant or probable cause apparently is deemed by the Obama administration to be a necessary ingredient of national security — a price we must all pay to remain safe from terrorists. The administration is joined in this view by the Congress, in particular the intelligence committees of both houses. I accept that reasonable minds may differ, but the very essence of our country is founded on rights and freedoms that our fathers and brothers and sisters have fought and died for, including personal privacy. Are we willing to give these rights up in the absurd hope that politicians can keep us free from terrorism? Surely we are made of sterner and wiser stuff.
As long as Americans continue to return to office politicians, including Presidents, who excuse and defend universal surveillance of the American people without warrants, their government will continue to push the envelope of permitted activity — and abuse of this power will remain almost inevitable. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday we’ll wake up and ask what happened. When did we let our government into our homes, our bedrooms, and every aspect of our lives? When did we lose the right of privacy, the right to a private conversation, the right to the quiet enjoyment of our lives? Mark the day – May 22, 2014 – when the absurdly named USA Freedom Act took it all away from us.