In January, after the disclosures by Edward Snowden about the scale of the US intelligence apparatus’s cyber snooping capabilities, President Barack Obama acknowledged the need to curtail the National Security Agency’s damaging practices and to begin a conversation on how a balance between national security and civil liberties could be struck. If it was clear then that downsizing the surveillance state would be a difficult task, the version of the USA Freedom Act that passed the House of Representatives last week underscored that fact.
Major revisions to the bill to water down its provisions from the version approved by the House Judiciary Committee led to some of the bill’s most vociferous backers withdrawing support, though the legislation still passed with 303 votes for, indicating bipartisan consensus. But the last-minute amendments stripped away the privacy protections and transparency requirements while expanding the potential pool of data the NSA can collect. In changes supported by the White House, the language of the bill was made more vague, replacing the definition of a search term that the NSA can use to collect information from “a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account” to “a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device”. This leaves enough ambiguity to enable nearly the same kind of mass surveillance as the NSA currently conducts.
Despite the damage to America’s reputation at home and abroad — the Chinese media, for instance, recently denounced the US as a “mincing rascal” — real reform in intelligence-gathering practices was always going to be a challenge. Advocates for the bill hope that the law will get some of its teeth back in the Senate. Though this remains the best political opportunity to institute reform, both Congress and the White House have shown little appetite for the battle it would entail.