ARL is pleased that the Senate has passed the USA FREEDOM Act, without weakening provisions that protect privacy and civil liberties. The USA FREEDOM Act prohibits the bulk collection that had been practiced by the National Security Agency and restores essential civil liberties. Passage of this bill is the first step forward in meaningful surveillance reform. ARL looks forward to working with Congress on continued reforms to protect privacy and civil liberties.
*Edited to include a link to the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) in-depth analysis of Senator McConnell’s proposed amendments to the USA FREEDOM Act*
Today, three key provision of the PATRIOT Act expired, including Section 215, known as the “library records” or “business records” provision. While the Senate voted 77-17 on late Sunday evening — just hours prior to the midnight expiration of Section 215 and other provisions — to move forward with a vote on the USA FREEDOM Act, a final vote will not come until later this week due to Senate rules requiring additional time for debate. Senator Paul’s (R-KY) earlier filibuster of the USA FREEDOM Act, which he argued did not go far enough in protecting privacy and civil liberties, delayed the process enough to result in at least temporary sunset of three provisions of the PATRIOT Act.
Section 215 has been used by the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct mass surveillance, including bulk collection of phone metadata. The Second Circuit recently ruled that this bulk collection exceeded the authority granted by Section 215.
While the Senate will hold a vote on the USA FREEDOM Act later this week, passage in its current form is not assured. Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has introduced four amendments, all of which would weaken the USA FREEDOM Act. These amendments would 1) extend the transition period for agency compliance with the USA FREEDOM Act from 6 months to 12 months; 2) replaces the section creating an amicus curiae to the FISA court with one that is less effective; 3) substitute the USA FREEDOM Act in its current form, including a new notice requirement for data retention for companies that intend to retain call detail records for less than 18 months and; 4) substitute the USA FREEDOM Act with all of the above changes and also removes the provision regarding declassification of FISA court opinions. The third and fourth amendments are complete substitutes of the House-passed version of the USA FREEDOM Act, essentially re-writing the bill with substantial amendments. CDT has a great in-depth explanation of each amendment here.
Should any of these amendments be accepted, the House of Representatives would need to accept these changes before the bill can be sent to President Obama. A number of Representatives have already criticized the USA FREEDOM Act as not going far enough to protect privacy and civil liberties and Senator McConnell’s amendments could be rejected in the House.
Efforts to weaken the USA FREEDOM Act, such as those advanced by Senator McConnell, should not be accepted. The USA FREEDOM Act should be considered to be the bare minimum in a series of reforms to the NSA’s surveillance practices and efforts to change the bill should focus on strengthening, rather than weakening, protections for privacy. Now that Section 215 and other provisions of the PATRIOT Act have expired, Congress must carefully consider what authorities it wants to grant the NSA and other federal agencies. Congress is no longer considering extension or reauthorization of existing powers, but will be granting authority to federal agencies once again. In doing so, ARL urges members of Congress to protect privacy and civil liberties in a meaningful way and ensure that the key protections advanced by the USA FREEDOM Act are not diminished.
Last week, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) engaged in a filibuster designed to stall consideration of a vote on the USA FREEDOM Act as well as Senator McConnell’s bill which would grant a clean reauthorization of certain expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act, including the controversial Section 215, also known as the “library records” or “business records” provision. Section 215 has been used by the National Security Agency (NSA) for bulk collection of phone metadata, a program which was recently ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The filibuster had bipartisan support and, due to its timing, could result in expiration of Section 215 which will sunset beginning on June 1. In the early hours of Saturday, May 23, just before the Senate adjourned, a vote to move forward with the USA FREEDOM Act (a bill which ARL has supported) failed, as did McConnell’s reauthorization bill. While Senator McConell’s bill initially proposed reauthorization for 5 years, he advanced attempts to reauthorize PATRIOT Act provisions for much shorter periods of two months, eight days, five days, three days and two days, ostensibly to give the Senate more time to craft a compromise on surveillance reform before expiration of Section 215 and other provisions. Each of these attempts failed.
Senator McConnell is expected to call for another vote on Sunday, May 31, hours before provisions of the PATRIOT Act will expire. It is unclear whether such a vote would be held for short-term reauthorization or on the USA FREEDOM Act, which fell just three votes shy of the 60 needed for cloture. Passing the USA FREEDOM Act in its current form, which has already been approved by the House of Representatives, is the only option that might completely avoid a sunset of Section 215 and other provisions. Even if Senator McConnell collects enough votes to approve a short-term reauthorization, it does not appear that the House will be able to hold a vote on such reauthorization. Likewise, if any amendments are made to the USA FREEDOM Act, the House would need to vote to approve these amendments. Because the House of Representatives is not scheduled to return until the afternoon of June 1, should a vote be required in the House, Section 215 as well as several other provisions will likely expire, even if it is for just a short period.
Reauthorization following a sunset of Section 215 would be therefore be seen as a new grant of authority rather than extension of existing authority. Politically, this distinction could be an important one and policymakers must carefully consider whether a new grant of authority to allow broad surveillance practices is warranted and, if so, what privacy and civil liberty protections are in place. ARL encourages members of Congress to protect privacy and civil liberty and ensure that meaningful reform of current surveillance practices are achieved in any new grants of authority.
On Wednesday, May 20, 2015, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took the Senate floor to filibuster the USA FREEDOM Act. While the Senate was considering a bill on trade promotion authority or “fast track” legislation, Senator Paul’s filibuster was intended to stall consideration of a vote of the USA FREEDOM Act. Senate procedural rules mean that the Senate would not be able to take a procedural vote on the USA FREEDOM Act or Senator McConnell’s bill to allow clean reauthorization of Section 215 until at least Saturday, unless there is an agreement to shorten the addition 30 hours of debate permitted.
Senator Paul has been a sharp critic of government surveillance, including under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act which is also known as the “library records” or “business records” provision. This provision has been relied upon by the National Security Agency (NSA) to engage in bulk collection of telephone metadata, though the Second Circuit recently ruled that such bulk collection was unlawful under Section 215. While the USA FREEDOM Act provides for new safeguards, Senator Paul has opposed the extension of Section 215 and other provisions of the PATRIOT Act. Although he opposes the current text of the USA FREEDOM Act, Paul has announced his intention to offer several amendments to the legislation.
Senator Paul’s filibuster was supported by Senators Daines (R-MT), Lee (R-UT), Heinrich (D-NM), Coons (D-DE), Tester (D-MT), Cantwell (D-WA), Blumenthal (D-CT), Wyden (D-OR) and Manchin (D-WV).
Image: Word Cloud of Senator Paul’s Filibuster of USA FREEDOM Act, Joseph Hall (CC-BY)
Additionally, while Senator McConnell has now filed motions to proceed on the USA FREEDOM Act and his reauthorization bill, both would still need to clear the hurdle of 60 votes for cloture. It is not clear whether there are enough votes for either bill. While there have been suggestions that Congress could pass a very short-term reauthorization — for example, a two-moth reauthorization — to provide time to forge compromise legislation, the House may not be able to consider such legislation before the June 1 sunset. There is, therefore, a possibility that Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act might sunset, which could greatly change the dynamic of the discussions on surveillance reform. Should Section 215 sunset, any reform legislation would essentially be seen as granting or reinstating authorization for surveillance under this provision once again rather than simply extending existing authorities, thus changing the political dynamic and potentially creating a basis for stronger reform to protect privacy and civil liberties.
On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the USA FREEDOM Act, legislation that bans bulk collection under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act as well as other authorities, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) pen/trap statute and national security letters (NSL) by an overwhelming majority of 338 to 88. ARL is pleased that the House of Representatives has passed stronger reform than its 2014 version and considers this development a step forward in surveillance reform.
Since 2006, the National Security Agency (NSA) has engaged in the practice of bulk collection of phone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, also known as the “library records” or “business records” provision. The 2015 USA FREEDOM Act, backed by the White House, specifically addresses this issue and prohibits bulk collection, only permitting limited surveillance orders that focus on a specific selection term. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also addressed this issue recently, ruling that the NSA’s practice of bulk collection exceeded the authority under Section 215 and therefore unlawful.
The 2015 version of the USA FREEDOM Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives also includes several amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and transparency measures, representing an improvement over the version passed during the last Congress. The bill will now go to the Senate and must be considered quickly, given the upcoming expiration date of certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act, including Section 215.
While the version passed today by the House of Representatives includes better reforms to surveillance practices than in the 2014 bill, the USA FREEDOM Act is just one step forward in a series of necessary reforms. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s recent unanimous decision that the NSA’s bulk collection practices exceeded the scope of authority granted under Section 215 demonstrates the egregiousness of the NSA’s interpretation of its authority and the willingness of FISC to approve such broad application of the law. Congress should take care to ensure that provisions under USA FREEDOM Act are not similarly interpreted in an overly-broad manner by the NSA to infringe on the privacy rights of those in the United States. ARL looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to ensure that privacy rights are respected and hopes that additional reforms will be made.
On May 7, 2015, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on the legality of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of telephone metadata. In a unanimous opinion, the court ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records exceeds the authority granted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, also known as the “library records” or “business records” provision.
The Second Circuit begins by recognizing that while telephone metadata does not reveal the content of the calls, this fact “does not vitiate the privacy concerns arising out of the government’s bulk collection of such data’ which can reveal a “startling amount of detailed information.” Telephone metadata
might reveal that an individual is: a victim of domestic violence or rape; a veteran; suffering from an addition of one type or another; contemplating suicide; or reporting a crime. Metadata can reveal civil, political, or religious affiliations; they can also reveal an individual’s social status, or whether and when he or she is involved in intimate relationships.
The court also notes that the more metadata collected, the more it can reveal private information.
The court then turned to the facts of the case and summarized the background of the NSA’s bulk collection practices. The NSA has conducted bulk collection of telephone metadata under Section 215 since at least May 2006. The government had collected the data and made “queries” on particular phone numbers that it believed to be associated with a foreign terrorist organization, as well as three “hops,” meaning that the contacts of the contacts of contacts of the original number queried were also looked at. In January 2014, the government limited the number of “hops” from three to two. Additionally, the government required a Foreign Intelligence Service Act Court (FISC) to make a determination that a reasonable articulable suspicion standard had been met, rather than allowing designated NSA officials to determine whether this suspicion existed. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Group concluded in a 2014 report that the NSA’s program “was inconsistent with §215, violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and implicated privacy and First Amendment concerns.”
After finding that the plaintiffs in the case had standing and the court was not precluded from hearing the case, the Second Circuit turned to the merits of the case and focused on the argument that the program exceeded the authority granted to the government by Section 215.
Section 215 permits the government to apply for “an order requiring the production of any tangible things” provided that they are “relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment) . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” The Second Circuit ruled that while Section 215 “sweeps broadly,” the NSA practices ignore the provision’s statutory limits.
First, while the Second Circuit agreed that the “relevance” standard is generous and Section 215’s use of the term is analogous with the term “relevance” used in the context of a grand jury subpoena, this term is not without its limits. With the NSA’s current bulk collection practices, “The records demanded are all-encompassing; the government does not even suggest that all of the records sought, or even necessarily any of them, are relevant to any specific defined inquiry.” The government argued that the records are “relevant” because they may allow the NSA to identify information that is relevant in the future, but “such an expansive concept of ‘relevance’ is unprecedented and unwarranted.” The court summarizes the government’s argument that “there is only one enormous ‘anti-terrorism’ investigation and that any records that might ever be of use in developing any aspect of that investigation are relevant to the overall counterterrorism effort.”
The Second Circuit points out that warrants and subpoenas for other programs are limited to particular individuals or corporations under investigation as well as specific time periods in stark contrast to the NSA’s program which do not have similar limits:
The records demanded are not those of suspects under investigation, or of people or businesses that have contact with such subjects, or of people or businesses that have contact with others who are in contact with the subjects – they extend to every record that exists, and indeed to records that do not yet exist, as they impose a continuing obligation on the recipient of the subpoena to provide such records on an ongoing basis as they are created. The government can point to no grand jury subpoena that is remotely comparable to the real-time data collection undertaken under this program.
The Second Circuit further notes that term relevant “does not exist in the abstract” and that “§215 does not permit an investigative demand for any information relevant to fighting the war on terror, or anything relevant to whatever the government might want to know.” Instead, it applies only to documents “relevant to an authorized investigation.” Allowing the NSA’s practices to proceed would “require a drastic expansion of the term ‘relevance.’”
Section 215 not only limits collections to what is relevant to an authorized investigation, but also provides that such investigation must not be a “threat assessment.” Thus, the court states, “Congress clearly meant to prevent §215 orders from being issued where the FBI, without any particular, defined information that would permit the initiation of even a preliminary investigation sought to conduct an inquiry to identify a potential threat in advance.” The NSA’s practices are “‘irreconcilable with the statute’s plain text.’”
Turning to the argument that Congress “ratified” the NSA’s practices by reauthorizing Section 215 in 2010 and 2011, the court noted that “Congressional inaction is already a tenuous basis upon which to infer much at all, even where a court’s or agency’s interpretation is fully accessible to the public . . .But here, far from the ordinarily publicly accessible judicial or administrative opinions that the presumption contemplates, no FISC opinions authorizing the program were made public prior to 2013.” Thus, “Congress cannot reasonably be said to have ratified a program of which many members of Congress – and all members of the public – were not aware.” The Second Circuit rejected the argument that Congress “ratified” the bulk collection practices because “these circumstances would ignore reality . . . it is a far stretch to say that Congress was aware of the FISC’s legal interpretation of §215 when it reauthorized the statute in 2010 and 2011.”
Finding that the program was not permitted under Section 215, the Second Circuit declined to rule on whether the NSA’s bulk collection also violated the Fourth Amendment. The court does, however, point to the “seriousness of the constitutional concerns.” It also notes that Congress has been debating the program and that a new version of the USA FREEDOM Act has been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate but, “we do not purport to express any view on the constitutionality of any alternative version of the program.”
Cross-posted from ARL News
ARL is disappointed that the US Senate failed to advance the USA FREEDOM Act (S. 2685), a bill that would have provided meaningful reform to current National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance practices and protect civil liberties. A November 18, 2014, evening vote on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) cloture motion to proceed with the USA FREEDOM Act fell two votes shy of the necessary 60 votes.
The USA FREEDOM Act, reintroduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in July, would have ended the current practice of bulk collection of phone records and prevented bulk collection of other records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, also known as the “library records” or “business records” provision. Additionally, S. 2685 included several reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), such as requiring unclassified summaries of FISC opinions with information necessary to understand the impact on civil liberties and creating a Special Advocate position charged with protecting privacy and civil liberties. Leahy’s bill also included enhanced transparency provisions.
The USA FREEDOM Act had broad support of advocacy groups and technology companies. The bill also gained support from key individuals, including President Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act will expire in June 2015 unless the US Congress votes to reauthorize the provision, and a continued fight over this provision is expected. Last year, revelations about the NSA program, including the breadth and scope of bulk collection of data, raised serious concerns regarding curtailment of civil liberties and the compatibility of these programs with the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. Even prior to these disclosures, the library community expressed reservations regarding overly broad national security powers and has repeatedly urged for necessary reforms.
While ARL is disappointed that the US Senate failed to address the serious civil liberties concerns raised by NSA surveillance practices and bring the USA FREEDOM Act to a vote, the Association remains hopeful that meaningful reform can still be achieved as the fight over bulk collection of records continues. ARL is grateful to Chairman Leahy for his leadership on NSA reform and looks forward to continuing to work with his and other offices on these important civil liberty issues in the future.
Today, November 18, 2014, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a cloture motion by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on the USA FREEDOM Act (S.2685), determining whether the Senate will move forward with a vote on this important piece of legislation. The motion needs sixty votes to proceed to the floor. Senator Leahy (D-VT) re-introduced a new version of the USA FREEDOM Act on July 29, 2014, which includes significant improvements over the version passed in the House (H.R. 3361) in May. Leahy’s bill, which has bipartisan support, provides for meaningful reform and protects civil liberties.
Leahy’s bill would end the current practice of bulk collection of phone records and prevent bulk collection of other records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, also known as the “library records” or “business records” provision. It would also make several reforms to the FISA Court, such as requiring that unclassified summaries of FISC opinions include information necessary to understand the impact on civil liberties and create a Special Advocate position charged with protecting privacy and civil liberties. Leahy’s version of the USA FREEDOM Act also includes enhanced transparency provisions.
ARL, along with a broad coalition of advocacy groups, supports this bill and has called for swift passage of this new version, without any dilution or amendment. The White House has now endorsed the bill, as well.
Senator Leahy’s USA FREEDOM Act represents a significant step forward in reforming NSA surveillance practices. ARL urges the Senate to move forward on the USA FREEDOM Act and pass the bill in its current form.
On Wednesday, November 12, 2014, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed a motion for cloture on the USA FREEDOM Act, bringing the legislation one step closer to passage. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a revised version of the bill in July 2014 which includes significant improvements over the version passed by the House of Representatives (H.R. 3361) on May 22, 2014.
Leahy’s version of the USA FREEDOM Act includes more effective language to end bulk collection and protect civil liberties as well as strengthened oversight and transparency provisions. The bill garnered bipartisan sponsorship and has a long list of supporters, including ARL.
On September 4, 2014, the Association of Research Libraries joined a coalition of 43 civil liberties, human rights and public interest organizations sent a letter to Senate leadership supporting swift passage of the USA FREEDOM Act (S. 2685) and expressing concerns regarding the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2014 (CISA, S. 2588).
The letter urges the Senate to pass the S. 2685 in its current form, noting that this version of the USA FREEDOM Act would end bulk collection of records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, a provision known as the “library records” or “business records” provision,” as well as under National Security Letter authorities. As the letter explains, S. 2685 also provides for other significant reforms including enhanced transparency, appointing of a special panel of civil liberties and privacy advocates to the FISA court, and limiting the purpose for which call detail records collected under Section 215 may be used.
Given these improvements, the signatories to the letter are “eager for Congress to pass this legislation swiftly and without weakening the bill.” As these groups previously expressed, Congress should not weaken the USA FREEDOM Act through consideration of new mandatory data retention requirements. The letter urges the Senate to make passage of the USA FREEDOM Act (S.2685) a legislative priority for September.
The letter then notes its opposition to and concerns regarding the CISA, pointing out that “Ironically, just as Congress is struggling to pass meaningful surveillance reform to rein in the NSA, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has approved a problematic bill that would give the NSA even more access to American’s data.” Advocacy groups have previously written to Congress and the President opposing CISA because the bill would pose serious threats to privacy by allowing information to automatically be disseminated to the NSA and other government agencies.
The letter concludes:
We therefore urge the Senate to swiftly pass the USA FREEDOM Act (S. 2685) without any amendments that would weaken its protections or create any new data retention mandates, and without taking up the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (S. 2588 in its current form. The Senate cannot seriously consider controversial information-sharing legislation such as CISA without first completing the pressing unfinished business of passing meaningful surveillance reform.