Updated: June 3, 2015 12:00:34 am
On midnight Sunday, three provisions of the George W. Bush-era USA Patriot Act were allowed to expire by the Senate. The patriot act was passed in the emotional aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, scarcely a month later. From the outset, the act was criticised for its apparent privileging of alleged national security imperatives over civil liberties. The disapproval become more vociferous as time has passed and the provisions of the act have seemed to lose relevance. Disclosures by Edward Snowden in 2013 about the National Security Agency’s pervasive cyber snooping capabilities sharpened that censure into a groundswell of opposition, to the degree that President Barack Obama was finally moved to acknowledge last year that America needed a conversation on how a balance between the competing objectives of national security and civil liberties could be struck. Now, the sections that provide the underlying legal justification for the NSA’s bulk phone data collection programme and other clandestine activities have lapsed, providing a respite from the government’s Orwellian oversight.
But it is likely to be only a temporary reprieve. There is, after all, bipartisan consensus on the necessity of widescale intelligence operations that would allow spy agencies like the NSA to intercept terrorist threats. Already there have been hectic negotiations in the Senate to pass a bill that would reauthorise, at least to some degree, such mass surveillance. The House of Representatives approved legislation in May to empower the NSA once again, with some modest but important restrictions imposed on its capabilities. But that version was deemed unacceptable by the Senate Republican leader, who accused it of limiting the NSA’s ability to uncover terrorist plots by requiring it to obtain the call data through telephone companies rather than collecting the information itself, and to get a court order to search the companies’ archives.
The wrangle over extending the NSA programme, despite the damage that has been done to America’s reputation, proves how difficult it is to scale down the surveillance state, once it is in place. Congress and the White House have shown little appetite for the political battle that real reform would entail.
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