Freedom Act Is on the Move

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By Christopher M. Finan, President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

A funny thing happened in the House of Representatives a couple of weeks ago.

The Judiciary Committee approved a bill — unanimously. And that’s not even the most amazing part.

The bill is the U.S.A. Freedom Act (H.R. 3361 and S. 1599). If it becomes law, it will be the first significant reform of the federal government’s surveillance authority since the passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act in 2001. (Yes, the sponsors deliberately imitated the name.)

The Freedom Act makes a number of important changes to the Patriot Act. The key reform would prohibit the National Security Agency from engaging in the “bulk collection” of information about Americans who are not suspected of engaging in criminal conduct.

It was Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, who alerted us to the fact that the government was gathering information about the phone calls made by every American. The revelation created a firestorm of criticism.

The government’s broad power to demand information is not limited to phone records. Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, it can secretly request an order for any item that is “relevant” to a national security investigation. People who receive such an order are forbidden to reveal its existence.

It is because of Section 215 that booksellers entered the fight to reform the Patriot Act. We feared that it could have a chilling effect on customers, who might be afraid to buy the books they want if they know that the government can secretly obtain the records of the titles they purchase.

Booksellers have supported a number of bills that would solve this problem, starting with the Freedom to Read Protection Act, which was introduced in the House by Bernie Sanders at the request of Vermont booksellers and librarians. The legislation actually passed the House as an amendment to an appropriations bill but was removed by a conference committee.

The Freedom Act is the latest fix. It limits government searches to the records of people who are actually suspected of engaging in espionage or terrorism. Thus, it does away with the relevance standard. Its passage would be the culmination of a fight to reform the Patriot Act that is now over a decade old.

That is why civil libertarians were celebrating after two House committees, Judiciary and Intelligence, unanimously approved the Freedom Act. On May 22, the House passed the bill by a vote of 303 to 121.

Of course, the Freedom Act is still a long way away from becoming law. The intelligence agencies are pushing back, demanding changes to protect programs that they believe are crucial to national security.

The bill has already been amended. The version that passed out of committee eliminated some provisions that are designed to make it easier to determine whether the government is complying with the law. This is alarming enough, but a series of last-minute changes made at the request of the Obama administration may undermine the goal of restricting searches to suspects.

Given the amendments to the bill, there is concern that Senate leaders may rush it to a vote before its problems can be addressed. It is for this reason that the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and other groups working on the bill wrote Senate leaders yesterday urging them to allow the relevant Senate committees to review the House bill. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the sponsor of the Senate version of the Freedom Act and the chair of the Judiciary Committee, has promised to try to improve the House bill.

So the fight is on. We may be forced to accept changes we don’t like. But for the first time in years the chance for meaningful change is real. We can thank Edward Snowden for that.

Chris Finan is president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship.