USA “Freedom” Act: Political Theater Affirms NSA Status Quo

National Security Operations Center, NSA
National Security Operations Center, NSA, United States. Source: Wikipedia.

EspañolFor the time being, it seems the promise of reform to the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States has been part of a big stage show. The text of the bill that just passed in the House of Representatives is a perfect example of gatopardism: a change so that nothing really changes.

In 2007, the NSA, one of the most secretive US intelligence agencies, launched the PRISM program, through which it directly accessed the servers of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and other internet giants, compiled billions of emails, chats, photos, phone call metadata (time, date, duration, and number called), and other information on social networks — and continues to do so.

Almost a year ago, thanks to the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, evidence of the PRISM program came to light, proving the NSA has carried out a program of mass domestic surveillance and data collection. For years the agency extended its tentacles in all telephone and internet communications, collecting all kinds of data. Through the cooperation of intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands, the NSA has become a threat to global privacy.

The extent of the surveillance is still difficult to measure. Only a small fraction of the many thousands of documents leaked by Snowden have been published. Wiretapping political leaders in more than 40 countries, collecting phone call metadata and geolocation records, intercepting servers, routers, and installing spyware, all reveal the extent of this global monitoring system.

The dissemination of classified documents triggered an international debate. Pressure from lawmakers and technology companies managed to spark discussion of reforming the NSA. However, not all members of Congress had the same kind of “reform” in mind.

On Thursday, those who seek to maintain the status quo achieved their first victory by passing the USA Freedom Act in the House of Representatives. While organizations critical of the NSA viewed the original draft of the bill as a first step, last minute changes to the legislation modified both the language of the bill and the hope of real reform.

Most of the controversy surrounding the bill involved defining the “specific selection terms,” language meant to restrict the scope of NSA surveillance. If the Senate approves the text of the bill without amendment, the NSA’s data collection would be limited to “specific selection terms” defined in the original draft as “persons, entities, and accounts.” However, the final draft in the House confusingly expanded the definition to include “addresses and devices,” further diluting the bill.

Current reform allows the NSA to intercept communications from or belonging to the “selection term” (a person, address, company, etc.), as well as anything else that contains information related to the term selected. In this way, the scope of surveillance will be expanded to invade the privacy of innocent people without a warrant. In addition, the NSA’s policy of “three hops” for collecting data will be limited to two, however, this minor restriction does not achieve the promise of limiting the agency’s reach, nor neutralize its ability to invade the privacy of individuals.

Another point of controversy in this legislation was the removal of the clause that would have allowed the presence of a defense attorney in the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a body that serves more as a mere bureaucratic formality in obtaining authorization to spy. The FISA Court was created in 1978 to oversee requests for surveillance warrants from federal agencies. This process is carried out in sessions closed to the public, with only the government being represented in court and without a publicly available record. The USA Freedom Act, if signed into law, changes nothing in this regard.

The reform also does not address infringements on privacy in the rest of the world. The vote in the House took place during the same week that new revelations of the NSA’s activity abroad came to light. Recently published documents provided by Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA recorded the content of all telephone communications in the Bahamas. These issues are not addressed in this phony reform.

In fact, the support coming from the White House for this bill confirms that this is the sort of reform designed to carry on with business as usual.

“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity, or love, or friendship is recorded,” said the now exiled Snowden when interviewed by The Guardian last year. The text of the USA Freedom Act does not bring us anywhere near the world that Snowden wants to live in.

The Senate now has the opportunity to amend the bill and give dignity to NSA reform. Should it fail to do so, Congressman Justin Amash, a sponsor of the original bill, warns that we risk maintaining and legalizing an unconstitutional domestic spying program on a mass scale.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

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