What Does The “USA Freedom Act” Really Say?

Photo credit: The Daily Dot
Photo credit: The Daily Dot

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), one of the original authors of the USA PATRIOT Act, jointly introduced an NSA reform bill on October 29. Rep. Sensenbrenner has clearly not lost any of his love of elaborate nationalistic acronyms in the intervening years, and named his bill the ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection, and On-line Monitoring Act”, or “USA FREEDOM ACT”. For once, the content of a bill proposed in Congress may actually bear some relation to its title, in that it appears to be a sincere effort to rein in several of the worst abuses at the NSA.

However, what has not been clear in the reporting on the Act is the specifics of what the Act actually does. A quick look at the original text shows why. As one activist lamented, “Unfortunately, the text is exceptionally hard to read … It would be much easier to read if the full text was collated with the current statutes.” Indeed it would. Luckily, Digital Fourth is on hand to provide a more detailed guide to its (very densely written) contents than is presently available.

For those who want a high-level summary of the bill, the ACLU has provided one here. What follows is a low-level, section-by-section summary of how the bill changes current law. We welcome updates and corrections as we go forward.

Continue reading “What Does The “USA Freedom Act” Really Say?”

StopWatchingUs DC rally rocks out: 3,000+ people call for NSA reforms

This Saturday, DC saw something it had never seen before.

A city that treats the superficial hatreds of party politics as its lifeblood, saw thousands of people from across the political spectrum gather to denounce NSA mass spying. We heard, and roared approval for, the words of feminist Naomi Wolf, Dennis Kucinich (Democrat), Justin Amash (Republican), and Gary Johnson (Libertarian). Kymone Freeman spoke movingly about the impact of surveillance on minority communities and the civil rights movement. Whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Russell Tice were there, and Edward Snowden sent a message to be read by leading whistleblower-protecting attorney Jesselynn Radack. Tea Party people up from Richmond, VA, proudly put on Code Pink stickers labeled “Make Out Not War”. The press reported wonderingly that it was not put together “by any of the “usual” well-connected DC organizers.” I should know: I’m proud to say that, in a small way, I was one of them, and this was the first time most of us had done anything like this.

That wasn’t all. Here in Boston, activist Joan Livingston put together a solidarity rally at Park Street Station:

and ACLU organizer Raquel Ronzone arranged for the rally to livestream at the Digital Media Conference in Cambridge.

If you want updates on the StopWatchingUs campaign going forward, text “PRIVACY” to 877877. Stay tuned for the next stage of the campaign, which will be to pass the “USA FREEDOM Act.” Personally, just to hammer home the point, I’d have preferred the “USA FREEDOM Fourth Amendment Restoration – Objective: Undermining Tyranny Act of 2013”, because I too can do acronyms, but such frivolity is apparently frowned upon in the legislature that gave us the Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 in the first place.

UPDATE: Oh yeah, I nearly forgot. I’m the tall guy to the left of Rep. Amash!

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Thousands to Rally in DC Against Mass Surveillance on Patriot Act Anniversary 10/26

We’re now at over 4,000 signups for the Stopwatching.us anti-NSA rally down in DC this Saturday!

We’re looking for people who are driving down to DC from New England and have space in their car for fellow protesters: please email me if that’s you!

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We’ll deliver a petition with over half a million signatures to Congress, We’ll demand real NSA reforms and an end to mass surveillance programs that do an end-run around the Fourth Amendment. It’s time for the lies to end.

To sign the petition: https://optin.stopwatching.us/
To join the rally: https://rally.stopwatching.us

Details below the fold:

Continue reading “Thousands to Rally in DC Against Mass Surveillance on Patriot Act Anniversary 10/26”

Now We’re Talking: Rep. Rush Holt (D-PA) files “Surveillance State Repeal Act”

In response to a groundswell of public horror at the intrusiveness and enormous scale of the surveillance state, President Obama appointed a blue-ribbon panel to consider changes – not to the programs themselves, God forbid, because Terror, but changes to how much we know about how much the government is spying on us.

Once again, as is so often the case, “Yes Minister” tells us what’s going on:

Sir Humphrey Appleby: … I am fully seized of your aims and of course I will do my utmost to see that they are put into practice.
James Hacker: If you would.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: And to that end, I recommend that we set up an interdepartmental committee with fairly broad terms of reference so that at the end of the day we’ll be in the position to think through the various implications and arrive at a decision based on long-term considerations rather than rush prematurely into precipitate and possibly ill-conceived action which might well have unforeseen repercussions.
James Hacker: You mean no.

Fortunately, some members of Congress are wise enough to see through this charade. Among them is progressive Democrat and physicist Dr. Rush Holt (D-PA), who has filed the “Surveillance State Repeal Act“.

Unlike more mealy-mouthed efforts at “reform”, this one strikes at the guts of the problem: the PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act themselves. Simply put, without these Acts, the kind of mass surveillance conducted by the NSA would no longer have any figleaf of legality. The FISA Amendments Act’s main purpose was to legalize what the government had already been doing, and immunize from prosecution the companies who had colluded with the government’s illegal warrantless surveillance of Americans. Then-Senator Obama (this is always worth pointing out) voted for it. He has never sincerely opposed mass government surveillance, he doesn’t oppose it now, and he will do his best to secure an outcome where nothing about what the NSA is actually doing has to change. And I say this as someone who voted for him in 2012, based on our agreement on many non-surveillance-related issues.

So, please call your congressmember and ask them to cosponsor Rep. Holt’s excellent bill, which also provides better protections for government whistleblowers. And if you’re in DC toward the end of October, please sign up to come and protest for surveillance reform with the Stopwatching.us coalition.

The House Reauthorizes the FISA Amendments Act, but Opposition Grows Among House Democrats

I care very passionately about Fourth Amendment rights, and of all the legislation on this issue, the FISA Amendments Act is possibly the worst. Hurriedly passed in 2008 with the Bush administration having one foot out the door, it retroactively immunized telecommunications companies from liability relating to their blatant disregard of laws intended to keep Americans’ phone calls secret. It allowed the executive branch to spy on Americans’ communications and retain their content, provided that the intent was to capture the content of communications with foreign nationals relating to terrorism – and who can say what the intent was? It was a blank check for the executive to do as it pleased, and perhaps that’s why then-Senator Obama voted for it.

You might think, then, that a House held by a party that waxes at length about how America is groaning under the tyranny of the Marxist-in-chief might oppose reissuing that blank check. As it turns out, not so much. The final vote tally was 301-118 in favor, including 227 Republican Yea votes.

So, what’s going on? What is happening to House Democratic support for civil liberties? And why are House Republicans giving the Obama administration a blank check on this, and only this issue?

Unexpectedly, among House Democrats, it’s not because the change in President has made them newly comfortable with warrantless surveillance. In 2008, when the law was originally proposed, 128 Democrats voted Yes, as opposed to 74 today. Many more House Democrats opposed it in 2012 than opposed it in 2008, even with a Democrat in the White House. 12 Democrats voted Nay in 2008 and Yea in 2012, and 9 Democrats moved the other way. However, Democrats new to the House, elected in 2008 and 2010, were much more likely to oppose reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act. This is presumably because warrantless surveillance was a hot issue with the Democratic base during the last years of the Bush administration, making it more likely that freshman Democrats would have run on opposition to warrantless surveillance relative to Democrats previously in the House.

The seven Nay votes among Republicans came from Amash (R-MI), Duncan (R-TN), Gibson (R-NY), Johnson (R-IL), Jones (R-NC), McClintock (R-CA) and Paul (R-TX ). They’re not Tea Party Caucus people (only two of its 61 members opposed reauthorization); instead, Ron Paul’s Liberty Caucus is leading the way.  We can deduce from this that the Tea Party folks really don’t care about the Fourth Amendment, or alternatively that they really think that the surveillance covered under the FISA Amendments Act relates only to foreign nationals. Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) asked tellingly during the one hour of debate allowed, “Are we to believe that the Fourth Amendment applies to the entire world?”, and many other speeches showed that House supporters of reauthorization thought it related only to foreign nationals.

Let me be blunt (I’m not that good at being tactful). There’s no out. There are no exceptions. The Constitution applies always, and people who claim it doesn’t can go suck it. Our Fourth Amendment should apply to every US government action anywhere in the world. Other governments’ actions can be bound by their own constitutions. But each government actor swears to uphold the Constitution, and they should do it. When the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay was set up, it was set up there on the theory that Guantanamo Bay was not US soil and the Constitution therefore didn’t apply there. I believe that wherever in the world the US government exercises control, its acts should be bound by the US constitution. If the US government wants to argue that the US constitution doesn’t apply at Guantanamo, then no legal vacuum can exist, and the US government is therefore bound in its actions there by the constitution of Cuba, from whom the US government leases Guantanamo Bay. And who wants that?

The courts, unfortunately, have endorsed executive abuses of the Fourth Amendment in part, and have introduced invalid distinctions between US governments spying on American nationals and US governments spying on foreign nationals. One day, I hope to see those distinctions overturned, and a uniform standard of probable cause applying to all surveillance efforts.

The FISA Amendments Act reauthorization now moves to the Senate. Please write your Senator to let them know that, for the sake of all of us, this vicious legislation should be allowed to die. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), to his immense credit, has put a hold on the reauthorization; please thank him here.