The Debate is Only Just Beginning: USA Freedom and the Surveillance State

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Last night the Senate allowed Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act to expire, despite dire predictions of calamity. They will begin debate on a replacement, the USA Freedom Act later today. The Bill of Rights Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation opposes the USA Freedom Act, and calls for a thorough congressional investigation into the surveillance authorities U.S. intelligence agencies have claimed to gather the private information without a warrant of US persons who are not under suspicion of any crime. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans have joined the debate over unwarranted mass surveillance in the last two weeks, and over the last two years since the first Snowden revelation,” said Sue Udry, Executive Director of BORDC/DDF.

“Massive trans-partisan civic participation has forced Congress for the first time to take action (albeit woefully inadequate) to rein in some unconstitutional spying.” Along with allies across the political spectrum, BORDC/DDF calls on Congress to use the expiration of Section 215 as a starting point for reforming the out of control surveillance practices of US intelligence agencies. Although the USA Freedom Act includes modest reforms, the FBI, NSA, and other intelligence agencies will be allowed to continue to collect private information about Americans’ who are under no suspicion of crime under Executive Order 12333 and the FISA Amendments Act.

BORDC/DDF calls on Congress to pass the Surveillance State Repeal Act in order to bring surveillance programs in line with the Constitution. “We need a new Church Committee,” Udry said, referring to the  Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations that investigated intelligence operations in the 1970s and found significant wrongdoing. “Congress continues to operate in willful ignorance, refusing to demand a full accounting of all surveillance programs our intelligence agencies are using to gather information about innocent Americans. Without Snowden, neither Congress nor the people would have been aware of the NSA’s bulk data collection. What else is going on behind our backs?”

Beyond the mass surveillance authorities in the bill, BORDC/DDF is concerned that transparency provisions are inadequate, and specifically exempt the FBI. This is particularly galling given a Dept. of Justice Inspector General report released two weeks ago that confirms the FBI has been using Section 215 to collect internet records in bulk , and violated the law regarding minimizing records for seven years. Further, the bill includes an increase to the maximum sentence for material support of terrorism, an unacceptably vague and expansive law that does not require a person to engage in or plan to engage in terrorism, or even knowingly support terrorism to be prosecuted. Since 9/11, the statute has become a favorite catch-all for the DOJ into which all sorts of constitutionally protected activities can be thrown and classified as suspect, if not criminal.