Surveillance Reform: Misleading Headlines, Uncertain Prospects

The day after Congress enacts what is touted as major legislation, it’s always a fun exercise to compare the headlines with the reality. Yesterday’s passage of the USA Freedom Act by the House is an illustrative case in point:

New York Times: House Votes to End N.S.A.’s Bulk Phone Data Collection

Christian Science Monitor: House passes bill to end NSA bulk collection of phone data

Bank Info Security: House Votes to Ban NSA Bulk Collection Program

There are plenty of others that echo the false claim that the bill “ends bulk collection” under the PATRIOT Act by the National Security Agency. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it does no such thing. It’s supporters contend that the bill would narrow the federal government’s collection of telephone metadata. Others in the privacy and civil liberties community dispute that contention. The only way the public will know whether critics or supporters of the bill are right is if it actually becomes law. So what are the prospects of the House-passed version of USA Freedom Act becoming law?

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has his way, zero.

Senator Bob Corker believes the country needs to expand bulk collection. And it’s interesting that he’s getting briefings from FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers to help him make that case…which is really curious given the fact that the man they work for — the President of the United States — has made it absolutely clear that he wants USA Freedom Act to become law.

So how does it all end?

Senator Chuck Grassley gave away part of the game last week in comments he made to the Times:

“Don’t you think that the strategy has always been to get up to the deadline and maybe you can force an issue that you couldn’t otherwise win on?” asked Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose efforts to negotiate a compromise have made little headway.

Several people have expressed the concern to me that the magnitude of the House vote on USA Freedom Act — 338 to 88 — signals to McConnell that if his full-on reauthorization fails, he can always allow USA Freedom Act to come up for amendment, gut it, and send it back to the House around noon on May 21 (right before the House is scheduled to adjourn for Memorial Day) and say “Take it or people will DIE.”

One week from today, we’ll know who blinked. My advice? If you want to keep your communications inaccessible to NSA, encrypt, encrypt, encrypt.

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