Edward Snowden woke up in Russia yesterday to news that surely made him weep. Eighteen months after he exposed the National Security Agency’s dragnet collection of domestic telephone data in the United States, a bill partially to rein it in had gone down in flames in the US Senate.
He will not be the only one. The draft law, called the American Freedom Act, had the backing of a wide coalition of forces including President Barack Obama and most of America’s big technology players like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft, who believe the surveillance state is robbing them of business. Civil liberties groups were also for it.
Regular folk won’t care for this either. An eye-opening study by the Pew Research Centre’s internet project last week showed that 70 per cent of people in this country are “at least somewhat concerned” about “Big Brother” government accessing their communications without their knowledge, particularly from social networks. Nine of out 10 fretted about private companies using their data without their permission.
It had taken months of debate to bring Congress to a point where the worst excesses of the NSA might at last have been addressed. A version of the bill was passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives back in May. In a procedural session late on Tuesday, the Senate iteration needed at least 60 votes to move forward. It received only 58 and is now stymied.
For privacy protection groups it was far from perfect. But it would have been a start, ending the mass collection of meta data on domestic phone calls in America, putting a panel of public advocates on the secretive federal surveillance court to curtail NSA intrusions and allowing companies like Google to make public those occasions when the agency demanded data from them.
So what happened? The Republicans happened. Or most of them anyway. Everything that emerged post-Snowden hasn’t chastened them one bit. That Mr Obama had to tell Angela Merkel that Uncle Sam had been tapping into her private phone is of no concern. Did they exploit the recent beheadings of American hostages in Syria to bolster their case that the NSA should be left alone? Of course they did.
“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs,” Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who in January will become the Senate Majority Leader, asserted. In return, Senator Patrick Leahy, the bill’s Democrat sponsor, accused Republicans of “fomenting fear” to block its adoption.
There is one intriguing sub-plot to Tuesday night’s action that has everything to do with 2016 and the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party standard-bearer from Texas, broke ranks and supported the bill as a brake on government intrusions. Senator Rand Paul, the libertarian from Kentucky, voted against it, arguing instead that it did not go far enough. He wants to fetter the NSA yet he helped killed the one bill that might have at least started the process.
That the Republicans will run both halves of Congress from January means the chances of these reforms being revived are scant. But the debate isn’t over. The part of the post-9/11 Patriot Act that permitted the NSA to collect phone data in the first place expires next June. If Congress fails to agree to extend those provisions then the NSA will find itself restricted anyway.
It’s possible, therefore, that this will prove an own goal for its defender and that Mr Snowden and anyone who thinks the NSA has been allowed to run amok may yet get the last laugh. But that is a theoretical possibility. Getting this bill signed into law now would have been entirely preferable.Reuse content