Obama Signs USA Freedom Act
President Barack Obama has signed the USA Freedom act, driving intelligence agencies to create a system that will leave the phone metadata with telecommunication companies instead of the government.
Congress approved making amendments to surveillance laws that were enacted after the attacks of September 11, eliminating the disputed bulk telephone records collection program of the National Security Agency and replacing it with a restrictive way to keep the records in the hands of phone companies.
After over 36 hours of the expiration of some major provisions of the Patriot Act, the Republican-controlled Senate voted in support of the bill. The Senate's 67-32 vote forwarded the legislation to President Obama, who signed the act the night of June 2 heavily reversing the most controversial surveillance program of America since 9/11.
Obama said that his Administration will work extensively to ensure the national security professionals have the complete set of vital tools required for protecting the country more efficiently. He also said that this legislation will improve civil liberty safeguards and lead to higher public confidence in such programs.
According to officials, it could take days to restart the collection. The majority of programs allowed by the Senate to lapse in dizzying collision of national security policy and presidential politics will be revived under the legislation. However, the authorization will face major amendments, the legacy of explosive revelations of the agency contractor Edward Snowden two years ago regarding domestic spying by the government.
Despite the strong opposition of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, the legislation passed with the support of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio and Obama. McConnell could not persuade the Senate for extending the current law unaltered, and could not amend the House version because of facing abandonement in a series of votes by nearly twelve of his own Republicans.
The USA Freedom Act is believed to be a step in the wrong direction by a frustrated McConnell, who expressed the same on the Senate floor prior to the final vote of the Senate to approve the House version. According to him, the legislation does not improve the privacy protections of the citizens, rather it undermines the security of the nation by stealing another tool from the protectors.
The most controversial element of the USA Patriot Act is also remade by the legislation, the once-secret bulk collection program allowing the National Security Agency to collect the phone records of Americans and scan through them for links with international terrorists.
Over a period of 6 months the NSA would lose the authority to gather and store those records. However, the government can still get court orders for obtaining data from the phone companies related to specific numbers, which usually store them for 18 months.
Other post-9/11 provisions for surveillance that lapsed May 31 will also be continued as they are believed to be much more effective as compared to the phone-data collection program. Some of those provisions include the FBI's authority to more conveniently eavesdrop on suspects who discard cellphones for avoiding surveillance, and to collect business records in terrorism and espionage investigations.
For restarting the collection of phone records, obtaining a new order from the Court of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance is required on the part of the Justice Department.
Boehner said that this legislation is important for keeping the citizens of America safe from terrorism and ensuring the protection of their civil liberties. He applauded the Senate for introducing renewal to the foreign intelligence capabilities of the nation.
But, the outcome lead to quite a dramatic series of events taking place on Capitol Hill involving Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a GOP presidential candidate who defied fellow Republicans and forced the existing law to lapse at midnight on May 31st, causing dire warnings of threats to the U.S.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida joined Paul and voted "no" along with Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running on the Democratic side. Among some other GOP presidential candidates, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who announced for president June 1, was absent and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was the only one to give a "Yes" vote.
Although the civil liberties groups have been giving mixed reaction on the legislation, it has been called "a milestone" by Jameel Jaffer, the Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union expressing their appreciation for the vote.