Four lawmakers with a strong record of opposing secret domestic surveillance are teaming up to try to kill the federal government's authority to collect our phone records.
Reps. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) and Zoe Lofgren (D–Calif.), joined by Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), have introduced the Ending Mass Collection of Americans' Phone Records Act in both the House and the Senate.
The bill would do exactly what the name says: It would snip out a section of law that has been used to justify and authorize mass collection of Americans' phone records—the metadata (who we're calling and when), not the conversations themselves.
This all follows reports earlier this month that after years of fighting over how much domestic surveillance power the National Security Agency (NSA) should have, it has quietly stopped trying to collect and access all of these phone records.
The change came as a bit of a surprise, as this was the surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden, and he fled to Russia and remains there to avoid criminal prosecution for disclosing this secret snooping. That the NSA might have stopped attempting to access all this metadata suggests that critics were right that it not only violated Americans' privacy but was not a particularly useful tool against terrorism.
But we don't really know for certain that NSA requests for phone metadata have actually stopped. And if they have, that doesn't mean the agency can't fire it back up. This bill is intended to ensure that the spies can't change their minds.
"After falsely insisting to Congress that this illegal surveillance program is carefully overseen and critical to national security, the government admitted last year that it had to delete years of records due to legal violations, and now it's been reported that the program has actually been shuttered for six months," Amash said in a prepared statement. "Getting rid of this program will vindicate Americans' rights and begin the process of making the broader Patriot Act reforms that are going to be necessary to address the law's serious constitutional flaws."
Following Snowden's revelations, these lawmakers successfully managed to force the sunset of part of the PATRIOT Act—Section 215—that had been used to justify this mass metadata collection. It was ultimately replaced with the USA Freedom Act, which allowed the collection, but in a more limited way and with additional oversight. The USA Freedom Act is going to sunset this year unless it's renewed, and this move is clearly meant to signal that lawmakers aren't going to just sit back and let it happen without a fight. Given now that there's evidence that the NSA has deliberately abandoned the powers provided by the USA Freedom Act and stopped accessing phone records, supporters of the surveillance state are going to have a harder time making the case that the law is even needed.
Bonus link: Before Snowden, way back in 1992, the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Adminstration embarked on a massive collection of Americans' phone records without warrants or judicial oversight—that time as part of the drug war. The man in charge: our current attorney general, William Barr.