Expansive surveillance reform takes backseat to House politics

1 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Expansive surveillance reform takes backseat to House politics.

The NSA’s phone-snooping program is likely on its last legs after a key House committee voted overwhelmingly Thursday to end the Patriot Act’s bulk-collection powers that the government was relying on to keep the phone program up and running.Credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com / photo on flickrA new attempt to scale back the mass domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) is making its way through Congress.

As lawmakers stare down the barrel of a deadline to renew or reform the Patriot Act, they have all but assured that more expansive reforms to U.S. intelligence powers won’t be included. Much of the scrutiny is on Section 215 of the Act, which allows the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to access and store the phone records of millions of Americans under the guise of national security. It’s not because of the substance of the reforms — which practically all members of the House Judiciary Committee said they support on Thursday — but because they would derail a carefully calibrated deal and are opposed by GOP leaders in the House and Senate.

The USA Freedom Act would end the government’s ability to collect those records, and instead force agents to demand specific information from private companies. Many of the bill’s backers privately concede it is unlikely that Congress will adopt stringent limitations to the NSA’s spying apparatus if an agreement is not worked out before that fast-approaching deadline.

His bill disregards any need for intelligence community reform, to the point where it almost seems like he doesn’t care about public opinion (or, obviously, letting people get spied on). Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted against the Act not because he is in favor of NSA surveillance (he’s very much against it), but because the legislation did not go far enough in his opinion.

But House leadership has indicated that the Freedom Act has its support, and it may earn a floor vote when the chamber reconvenes after next week. “Of course it’s not everything I’d want, but I think it’s a solid agreement that basically passed the House last year,” House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday during a press conference. He may still have a problem with H.R. 2048, because this version is even a little bit weaker than last year’s effort, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Ted Poe (R-Texas) would block the spy agency from using powers under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act to collect Americans’ Internet communications without a warrant. The bill’s speedy movement through committee after being introduced just on Tuesday signals the blessing of both House leadership and the heads of the Intelligence Committee.

Under the NSA program that has become the focus of the debate, the government collects and stores five years’ worth of records recording the numbers, times and durations of phone calls made within the U.S. It’s not encouraging that a massive amount of its funds are going towards a single facility in Utah. “The $1.7 billion facility, two years in the making, will soon host supercomputers to store gargantuan quantities of data from emails, phone calls, Google searches and other sources,” reporter Rory Carroll wrote in an article for The Guardian. “Sited on an unused swath of the national guard base, by September it will employ around 200 technicians, span 1 million square feet and use 65 megawatts of power.” Distressing still is the limited usefulness of the base.

The NSA has relied on the powers of Section 702 to conduct its “PRISM” and “Upstream” collection programs, which gather data from major Web companies such as Facebook and Google, as well as to tap into the networks that make up the backbone of the Internet. Federal officials insist they only store the data and don’t peruse it unless they have a specific reason to believe a number is relevant to a terrorism investigation.

What that means is that if the bill passes, the NSA won’t be able to scoop up data en masse from telecom companies like it did before; instead, it would be required to request data using keywords. But civil libertarians say collecting and holding the data in the first place is an abuse, and point to the conclusions of several reviews that say the information hasn’t been relevant in stopping terrorist plots. A broad selection term (“People in California” or “People with Verizon phones”) would mean massive record collection, but carefully constructed and defined specific selection terms would strictly limit the collection. That’s not even touching the fact that the vast majority of data collected is from innocent Americans who have nothing to do with national security. The effort is likely to meet some resistance from defense hawks and civil libertarians alike, who alternately worry that it would go too far or not nearly far enough to rein in government spying on Americans.

That clean authorization is cosponsored by Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, who has said it is meant to be a starting point more than a final deal. The bill that cleared the House committee Thursday would prohibit indiscriminate collection of data and also reins in federal investigators’ ability to demand information through secret national security letters. Unsurprisingly enough, the NSA is having trouble storing all this data. “The intelligence people I’ve spoken to are warning of data crunch – a polite way of saying they’re drowning,” intelligence historian Matthew Aid told The Guardian. “They say they don’t have enough capacity and will be back to Congress looking for more money to expand.” This seems greatly counter-productive.

The move to drop the fix was all the more frustrating, supporters of the amendment said, because Congress overwhelmingly voted 293-123 to add similar language to a defense spending bill last year. “How can it be when the House of Representatives has expressed its will on this very question, by a vote of 293-123, that that is illegitimate?” asked Rep. And with its patriotic name engineered to garner bipartisan support, USA Freedom is getting pushed as a way to curb government oversteps, with support across the aisle and from big tech companies like Google and Facebook. The careful tightrope the bill will have to walk was on full display during Thursday’s markup, when lawmakers debated for nearly an hour whether or not to expand the legislation to also cover NSA snooping on people’s Internet communications. It would instead allow NSA analysts to ask for call metadata—the numbers, time stamps, and duration of a call but not its content—from phone companies on an as-needed basis after obtaining judicial approval. In these cases, the term must be a “person, account, address, or personal device.” The term must also limit the scope of these requests for information to the greatest extent possible, and cannot collect records that are overly broad, like those that relate to a geographic region or an entire electronic communications service provider.

Not only would it end the bulk collection of American’s telephone records (though it would not end bulk collection of American communications entirely), but it would save the nation billions of dollars. It expands surveillance of foreign nationals coming in and out of the country, and increases penalties for people caught providing “material support” to terrorists. But the legal justifications that allow for mass surveillance have become a massive multi-headed hydra, and this legislation would just chop through a couple of necks.

Simply there is no good reason to reauthorize these provisions, as even top government officials admit that mass collection is not worth the price tag. It would also allow U.S. tech firms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to disclose more information about government data requests made via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and give these companies more leeway in how they can respond to national security orders. The NSA justifies this giant collection on the basis of its relevance in the fight again terror, however, the President’s Review Board found the opposite to be true. “Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional orders,” the Board said in a report titled “Liberty and Security in a Changing World.” Why pay for something of this size that is “non-essential?” Moreover, the President himself has called for the removal of the provisions in question in an attempt to “to give the public greater confidence that their privacy is appropriately protected,” according to whitehouse.gov.

National Security should not be an all-encompassing excuse for the government to pass whatever laws it wishes; they should hold some relevance to the issues at hand. Some, such as those at the Center for Democracy & Technology, support the language, arguing it represents the best chance in Congress to nab substantive surveillance reforms in years.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, however, are not offering their blessings, instead advocating a complete sunset of the Section 215 authorities. Yet better alternatives, like the Surveillance State Repeal Act, have no real chance of garnering support in Congress precisely because they are so much more comprehensive that they will invariably alienate the intelligence community. Ultimately, ending bulk surveillance necessitates addressing Executive Order 12333, the primary legal authority the NSA uses to surveil non-Americans. Surveillance abuses will not be resolved until our broken classification system—which shields matters of public importance from public scrutiny—is fixed.

John Conyers, the Judiciary panel’s top Democrat. “We negotiated this bill in good faith.” Privacy advocates were particularly dismayed to see an amendment shot down that had been offered by Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho noted at one point. “It’s a sad day for America.” While the House appears headed for a vote on the bill soon, the Senate’s intentions remain unclear.

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