The USA Freedom Act, formally titled the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-Collection and Online Monitoring Act, is a proposal submitted on October 29, 2013 by Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the Patriot Act, and supported by Senator Patrick Leahy.
The bill's stated purpose is: "To rein in the dragnet collection of data by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies, increase transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), provide businesses the ability to release information regarding FISA requests, and create an independent constitutional advocate to argue cases before the FISC."
The Act would end the bulk collection of Americans' metadata, end the secret laws created by the FISA court, and introduce a "Special Advocate" to represent public and privacy matters. Other proposed changes include limits to programs like PRISM, which "incidentally" retains Americans' Internet data, and greater transparency by allowing companies such as Google and Facebook to disclose information about government demands for information. The proposed legislation would amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act to ensure that any phone records obtained by the government were essential in an investigation that involved terrorism or espionage, thereby ending bulk collection, according to the bill's sponsors. Leahy says that the bill also "preserves the intelligence community’s ability to gather information in a more focused way."
Many lawmakers believed that in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, restoration of public trust would require legislative changes. More than 20 bills have been written since the disclosures began with the goal of reigning in government surveillance powers.
Sensenbrenner, a key author of the Patriot Act, written after the September 11 terrorist attacks to give more power to US intelligence agencies, claimed it was time to put the NSA's "metadata program out of business". With its bulk collection of Americans' phone data, Sensenbrenner asserts that the intelligence community 'misused those powers', had gone "far beyond" the original intent of the legislation, and had 'overstepped its authority'.
Leahy described the impetus for proposed changes, saying:
"The intelligence community has failed to justify its expansive use of [the FISA and Patriot Act] laws. It is simply not accurate to say that the bulk collection of phone records has prevented dozens of terrorist plots. The most senior NSA officials have acknowledged as much in congressional testimony. We also know that the FISA court has admonished the government for making a series of substantial misrepresentations to the court regarding these programs. As a result, the intelligence community now faces a trust deficit with the American public that compromises its ability to do its job. It is not enough to just make minor tweaks around the edges. It is time for real, substantive reform."
The USA Freedom Act has broad bipartisan support, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. It has over 102 co-sponsors.
Representative Justin Amash, author of the narrowly-defeated Amash Amendment, a proposal that would have de-funded the NSA, backed the USA Freedom Act. He commented, "It's getting out of control ... (Courts are issuing) general warrants without specific cause, ... and you have one agency that's essentially having superpowers to pass information onto others."
According to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, even if the Freedom Act becomes law, the NSA could continue its bulk collection of American's phone records. He explained that "it’s going to depend on how the [FISA] court interprets any number of the provisions" contained within the legislation. Jennifer Granick, Director of Civil Liberties at Stanford School of Law, likens this to a coup d’etat: "The Administration and the intelligence community believe they can do whatever they want, regardless of the laws Congress passes, so long they can convince one of the judges appointed to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to agree."
- Official page at Library of Congress
- USA Freedom Act at Representative Sensenbrenner's official site
- Full Text of the the USA Freedom Act
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