The End of 215?

We can only hope.

NSA and FBI fight to retain spy powers as surveillance law nears expiration

by Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian

Wednesday 15 April 2015 07.15 EDT

Section 215 is the authority claimed by the NSA since 2006 for its ongoing daily bulk collection of US phone records revealed by the Guardian in 2013 thanks to leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden. While the Obama administration and US intelligence agencies last year supported divesting the NSA of its domestic phone metadata collection, a bill to do so failed in November.

Yet with Section 215’s lifespan now stretching to a matter of weeks, supporters of broad surveillance powers have yet to put forth a bill for their preservation – evidence, opponents believe, that the votes for reauthorization do not exist, particularly not in the House of Representatives.

More likely, according to a multiple Hill sources, is a different option under consideration: making the major NSA reform bill of the last Congress the point of departure for reauthorizing 215 in the current one.

That bill, the USA Freedom Act, passed the House in May 2014 before narrowly failing in November in the Senate. Belatedly, the White House endorsed it, after seeing it had a greater chance of passage than any pro-NSA alternative. Yet the House version lost substantial civil-libertarian support after the intelligence agencies and House leadership weakened its surveillance restrictions, including its central prohibition on the bulk collection of domestic phone records.

Advocates of the bill in both congressional chambers, including its original architects, have been laboring for eight weeks in marathon negotiations to revive the USA Freedom Act. The revived bill would extend the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act for a still-undetermined number of years – essentially staking out the center of the 2015-era surveillance debate for a bill that would take NSA out of the domestic bulk-collection business.

Advocates believe they are close enough to agreement that reintroduction could come as early as Thursday and would move through the judiciary committees.

But several privacy activists inside and outside Congress consider the USA Freedom Act insufficient.

The bill would not abridge NSA collection of Americans’ international communications, nor prevent the NSA or the FBI from warrantlessly searching through its troves of them for Americans’ identifying information. Nor would it restrict a constellation of surveillance efforts authorized by a Reagan-era executive order. Even a recently disclosed bulk domestic phone records collection dragnet by the Drug Enforcement Agency would be untouched.

“We should be demanding more reforms than the intelligence agencies are gladly willing to offer us,” said David Segal of the activist group Demand Progress.

“A lot of it is going to hinge on the freshmen. Right now, as far as I can tell, the select intelligence committee is making a real strong play to persuade the freshmen that all of these public concerns are overblown,” Massie said.


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