CONGRESS IS IRRELEVANT ON MASS SURVEILLANCE. HERE’S WHAT MATTERS INSTEAD.
By GLENN GREENWALD
Nov 19 2014
The “USA Freedom Act”—which its proponents were heralding as “NSA reform” despite its suffocatingly narrow scope—died in the august U.S. Senatelast night when it attracted only 58 of the 60 votes needed to close debate and move on to an up-or-down vote. All Democratic and independent senators except one (Bill Nelson of Florida) voted in favor of the bill, as did three tea-party GOP Senators (Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Dean Heller). One GOP Senator, Rand Paul, voted against it on the ground that it did not go nearly far enough in reining in the NSA. On Monday, the White House had issued a statement“strongly supporting” the bill.
The “debate” among the Senators that preceded the vote was darkly funny and deeply boring, in equal measure. The black humor was due to the way one GOP senator after the next—led by ranking intelligence committee member Saxby Chambliss of Georgia (pictured above)—stood up and literally screeched about 9/11 and ISIS over and over and over, and then sat down as though they had made a point. Their scary script had been unveiled earlier that morning by a Wall Street Journal op-ed by former Bush Attorney General Mike Mukasey and former CIA and NSA Director Mike Hayden warning that NSA reform would make the terrorists kill you; it appeared under this Onion-like headline:
So the pro-NSA Republican senators were actually arguing that if the NSA were no longer allowed to bulk-collect the communication records of Americans inside the U.S., then ISIS would kill you and your kids. But because they were speaking in an empty chamber and only to their warped and insulated D.C. circles and sycophantic aides, there was nobody there to cackle contemptuously or tell them how self-evidently moronic it all was. So they kept their Serious Faces on like they were doing The Nation’s Serious Business, even though what was coming out of their mouths sounded like the demented ramblings of a paranoid End is Nigh cult.
The boredom of this spectacle was simply due to the fact that this has been seen so many times before—in fact, every time in the post-9/11 era that the U.S. Congress pretends publicly to debate some kind of foreign policy or civil liberties bill. Just enough members stand up to scream “9/11″ and “terrorism” over and over until the bill vesting new powers is passed or the bill protecting civil liberties is defeated.
Eight years ago, when this tawdry ritual was still a bit surprising to me, I live-blogged the 2006 debate over passage of the Military Commissions Act, which, with bipartisan support, literally abolished habeas corpus rights established by the Magna Carta by sanctioning detention without charges or trial. (My favorite episode there was when GOP Sen. Arlen Specter warned that “what the bill seeks to do is set back basic rights by some nine hundred years,” and then voted in favor of its enactment.) In my state of naive disbelief, as one senator after the next thundered about the “message we are sending” to “the terrorists,” I wrote: “The quality of the ‘debate’ on the Senate floor is so shockingly (though appropriately) low and devoid of substance that it is hard to watch.”
So watching last night’s Senate debate was like watching a repeat of some hideously shallow TV show. The only new aspect was that the aging Al Qaeda villain has been rather ruthlessly replaced by the show’s producers with the younger, sleeker ISIS model. Showing no gratitude at all for the years of value it provided these senators, they ignored the veteran terror group almost completely in favor of its new replacement. And they proceeded to save a domestic surveillance program clearly unpopular among those they pretend to represent.
There is a real question about whether the defeat of this bill is good, bad, or irrelevant. To begin with, it sought to change only one small sliver of NSA mass surveillance (domestic bulk collection of phone records under section 215 of the Patriot Act) while leaving completely unchanged the primary means of NSA mass surveillance, which takes place under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, based on the lovely and quintessentially American theory that all that matters are the privacy rights of Americans (and not the 95 percent of the planet called “non-Americans”).
There were some mildly positive provisions in the USA Freedom Act: the placement of “public advocates” at the FISA court to contest the claims of the government; the prohibition on the NSA holding Americans’ phone records, requiring instead that they obtain FISA court approval before seeking specific records from the telecoms (which already hold those records for at least 18 months); and reducing the agency’s “contact chaining” analysis from three hops to two. One could reasonably argue (as the ACLU and EFF did) that, though woefully inadequate, the bill was a net-positive as a first step toward real reform, but one could also reasonably argue, as Marcy Wheeler has with characteristic insight, that the bill is so larded with ambiguities and fundamental inadequacies that it would forestall better options and advocates for real reform should thus root for its defeat.