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U.S. Senate approves 'Freedom Act' to renew government spying powers

Freedom Act

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(NaturalNews) Well, that was short-lived.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a measure that reaffirms previous legislation the Bush and Obama Administrations used to justify tasking the National Security Agency with conducting massive, and early on warrantless, electronic surveillance on Americans. Controversial provisions of the law that both administrations used to "authorize" such tasks – the USA Patriot Act – expired June 1, at which time the NSA's surveillance programs were supposed to be shut down.

But, if the Senate gets its way, the agency's program shut-down won't last long.

According to reports, the new legislation ostensibly adds some reform measures to overall NSA spying programs and procedures, but not enough, say opponents. Nevertheless, the House had already passed a version – the USA Freedom Act – and had sent it to the upper chamber for consideration. Now that it has been passed in both chambers, the measure goes to President Obama, who is expected to sign it quickly.

As reported by National Journal:

By an overwhelming margin, lawmakers approved 67-32 the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which would restore the three provisions of the Patriot Act that expired on June 1, but usher in a bevy of changes designed to better protect privacy and increase transparency of the government's surveillance operations.

Those changes, The Washington Times reported, "ban bulk collection of Americans' data and" add "more transparency checks to the secret court that oversees intelligence gathering in the hopes of heading off future surprises."

In addition, said the Times, the NSA must wind down its current programs within six months (wasn't it supposed to have done that June 1?) and create a new program that leaves phone metadata with telecoms, and only query when intelligence officials believe they have a terrorism lead.

Earlier, the Senate rejected several amendments offered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that were aimed at weakening the legislation (to make it easier to allow the NSA to pretty much conduct the same kind of surveillance it was tasked to conduct under the USA Patriot Act). But that last stand of McConnell's followed an earlier reluctant decision to even allow a vote on the reform measure, which he made only as a result of increased pressure from members of both parties.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, an original co-sponsor of the Freedom Act, managed to whip up enough support from members of his own party to oppose the McConnell amendments.

"This is only the beginning," Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said at a conference after the final vote. "There is a lot more to do."

Ironically, McConnell, in making his pitch, put blame on President Obama for the weakened measure, though the president himself, like McConnell, had argued for an extension of the original Patriot Act, with its controversial spy provisions intact.

"While the president has inflexibly clung to campaign promises made in 2008, the threat of al-Qaeda has metastasized around the world," McConnell said. It was not the time, he said, to "take one more tool away."

"We're talking about call-data records. Nobody's civil liberties are being violated here," he added.

For his part, former NSA contactor Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who broke the story about the NSA's massive surveillance programs, said during a conference call from Russia, where he has been given asylum, that the new Freedom Act is an "important" first step.

The passage of the Freedom Act comes amid a high-profile push by Sen. Rand Paul to end the NSA's domestic spying, the only declared GOP presidential candidate to make such a demand. Paul has used his anti-spying effort to boost his presidential credentials.

As for the NSA, the agency was always going to do what the President, as head of the Executive branch, ordered it to do. If Obama wanted surveillance programs to continue – and he obviously did – it is hard to think that the agency really "shut down" any of its programs to begin with.

Also, intelligence oversight committees in both chambers of Congress are staffed by majorities of lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle who also wanted the agency's spy programs to continue.

Now, however, that a "reform" law has been passed, the programs can continue, at least, under the illusion of constitutionality. But it's just an illusion.





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