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Senate Advances USA Freedom Act, Begins Debate On Amendments

The USA Freedom Act, which would revive some of the NSA surveillance powers that expired with Section 215 of the Patriot Act, advanced in the Senate on Tuesday morning, 83-14, and will now be opened up to a series of amendments that will be voted on, before a final Senate vote on the bill on Tuesday afternoon.

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On Tuesday, the United States Senate voted, 83-14, to advance the USA Freedom Act, opening it up to a series of amendments that will be voted on, before a final Senate vote on the bill on Tuesday afternoon.

The USA Freedom Act was created as a substitute for Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which expired at 12:01 a.m. on June 1. The controversial Section 215 was used by the National Security Agency to justify its bulk collection of Americans’ data. The campaign against extending the Patriot Act was led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who hailed the expiration of Section 215 as a victory over NSA spying.

Advocates of the USA Freedom Act presented it as a way to curb the powers of the NSA by transferring the bulk collection Americans’ phone records to private companies. However, those in opposition noted that it wouldn’t end the government’s collection; it would only change the channels the government went through to collect Americans’ records.

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While the House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act with an overwhelming vote of 338-88, the bill failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed in the Senate on May 22, with a 57-42, following Paul’s 10-hour and 30-minute speech against both the USA Freedom Act, and an extension of the Patriot Act, on May 20.

Following a weeklong recess, in which many lawmakers vowed to lobby for the three votes needed to pass the USA Freedom Act, it was advanced in the Senate on Sunday, with a vote of 77-17.

Now that the USA Freedom Act has advanced in the Senate, the debate on possible amendments to the bill will begin, and if any of those amendments are passed, the bill will then return to the House of Representatives for another vote.

The Guardian reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is presenting three amendments, which he called “common sense” safeguards for “fundamental and necessary counterterrorism tools.”

The first of McConnell’s proposed amendments would “allow for more time of the construction and testing of a system that does not yet exist,” the second would “ensure that the director of national intelligence is in charged with at least ensuring the readiness of the system,” and the third would require telecom companies to notify Congress when they “elect to change their data retention policies.”

While Paul has gained support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, one of his most prominent allies has been Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a strong opponent of NSA surveillance.

Bloomberg reported that Paul and Wyden will propose nine amendments to the USA Freedom Act that would aid in increasing the visibility and restricting the actions of the intelligence agencies:

  • Require the government to get a warrant before collecting personal information from third parties.
  • Raise the standard for government collection of call records under FISA from “reasonable grounds” to “probable cause.”
  • Limit the government’s ability to use information gathered under intelligence authorities in unrelated criminal cases.
  • Amendment 1443: Make it easier to challenge the use of illegally obtained surveillance information in criminal proceedings.
  • Prohibit the government from requiring hardware and software companies to deliberately weaken encryption and other security features.
  • Clarify the bill’s definition of “specific selection terms.”
  • Require court approval for National Security Letters.
  • Prohibit the government from conducting warrantless reviews of Americans’ email and other communications under section 702 of the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Act.
  • Strengthen the bill with additional provisions from previously introduced surveillance reform legislation.
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