Senate Passes USA FREEDOM Act by 67–32 Vote

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The U.S. Senate approved the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R. 2048) by a vote of 67–32 on Tuesday, June 2. The bill had already passed the U.S. House of Representatives by an overwhelming vote. President Obama signed the FREEDOM Act into law late on Tuesday, restoring the sections of the USA PATRIOT Act that expired on Sunday, when the Senate was unable to agree on legislation extending them.

The FREEDOM Act is an important curb on the government’s power under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. It was introduced in 2013 after whistleblower Edward J. Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency was using a single Section 215 order to collect information about the telephone calls of millions of Americans. The FREEDOM Act would end the “bulk collection” of telephone calls and all other records.

“The passage of the FREEDOM Act is an important victory in the fight to restore the protections for privacy that were eliminated by the USA PATRIOT Act,” said Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE).

Booksellers, librarians, publishers, and authors began advocating for changes in Section 215 soon after the passage of the PATRIOT Act in October 2001. In 2004, they created the Campaign for Reader Privacy to highlight the threats the PATRIOT Act posed to the privacy of bookstore and library records. They collected hundreds of thousands of signatures in a petition campaign to support the Reader Privacy Protection Act, which was introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was then a member of the House.

The FREEDOM Act does not accomplish everything that reformers are seeking, Finan noted. The Campaign for Reader Privacy sought to limit Section 215 searches to the records of suspected terrorists. Under the FREEDOM Act, the government will continue to have the authority to search any “relevant” records. But it does reduce the danger that the government will use a secret order to search all of the records of a bookstore or library.  

The FREEDOM Act requires the government to provide information identifying a specific person, account, address, or other “specific selection term” (SST) when it applies for authority to search under Section 215. The bill makes clear that the purpose of the SST is “to limit, to the greatest extent reasonably practicable, the scope of tangible things sought.”

The FREEDOM Act also includes provisions that would make it easier to monitor whether the government is abusing its authority. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which secretly reviews requests for Section 215 orders, will be required to declassify its opinions whenever it can and to publish an unclassified summary when it can’t do so without revealing classified information. A panel of experts will be appointed to help the FISC weigh the privacy implications of its decisions. Private companies will be permitted to release more information about the secret orders they receive from the government.

The FREEDOM Act extends Section 215 and two other sections of the PATRIOT Act through 2019.