Freedom Act Doesn’t Equal Congressional Freedom
On June 1 of this year, the Patriot Act expired. Although it was subsequently revived by the passage of the USA Freedom Act, the intentional expiration of the Patriot Act provided clear evidence that members of Congress abused the Constitution’s checks-and-balances system in the name of re-election greed.
Opponents of the Patriot Act declare that the government’s monopoly over personal technology overextends its legal authority. In particular, Section 215 provides the National Security Agency (NSA) with the majority of phone records, including the name of the callers, phone location, and duration of the call, dubbed “metadata”. This information disclosure is in part due to the ambiguous language of the act: rather than specifically listing the jurisdiction of the government, the Patriot Act simply declares governmental authority to collect anything “tangible” in relation to a government investigation.
What’s important to remember is that government agents don’t sit around collecting metadata with the intention of abusing their authority. To the average American and to the Patriot Act’s opponents, the government is a huge bureaucracy that actively seeks to inhibit personal freedoms. This image, however, inaccurately portrays the efforts of the intelligence community to protect the United States. While the government under the Patriot Act did indeed collect metadata on every American in the United States and may even have occasionally processed innocent Americans’ information, intelligence officers collected metadata with the aim of investigating potential terrorists and gaining advantages over foreign agents. In other words, the government used Section 215 of the Patriot Act’s declared regulations in order to increase American security, not to deliberately invade privacy. One instance of privacy invasion may have prevented a terrorist middleman from making a connection to his organization; thus, the Patriot Act can hardly be considered a “bad law”.
With the passage of the USA Freedom Act, some of the Patriot Act’s provisions have been revoked, including Section 215. Now, government agents must travel to communication centers to obtain targeted information. Although the USA Freedom Act was passed with honest intentions, Congress doesn’t realize the implications the act has for national security. Now, government agents must spend an exorbitant amount of time to target their information to a specific organization or individual. Most intelligence comes in the form of a needle, and officers must find this needle in the middle of a haystack. The correct haystack, however, is in a field of haystacks, and under the new Freedom Act, the officers don’t know which haystack is the right one[AS1] . Congress may be pushing for their constituents’ liberties; however, without the Patriot Act’s Section 215, intelligence agencies will spend more time and money to gain the intelligence necessary to prevent an attack. The collection of metadata must parallel the increased access to technology for Americans as well as terrorists.
Yet some Congressmen, including Rand Paul, supported the Freedom Act officially because of its abuse of civil liberties. There remain two parts to the opposition: firstly, civil liberties organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are in fact justified in stating that Section 215 overstepped legal boundaries; and secondly, the changing opinions of the public.
Legally, intelligence agencies both overstepped and retained their boundaries during the Patriot Act’s tenure. Congress and President Obama signed bills and executive orders to provide the government with legal means for tracking down terrorists, including “lone wolf” terrorists. At the same time, the orders they undertook may have violated the Fourth Amendment, disbarring the legality of their bills. ACLU calls these abuses “unchecked government power”. Ironically, government agencies are not responsible for determining which laws are in effect; rather, they function with the laws that they are given. Thus, it appears as though government administration, namely Congress, the executive office, and the Department of Justice are responsible for the intelligence mishaps. Though the government may have abused its power, those who were conducting the so-called abuse did so under the discretion of the real abusers, including opponents of the Patriot Act, who were oftentimes unaware of what intelligence officers did with their authority.
Based on the Constitution, Congress supposedly reacts to what the public wants and its shifting nature is a nod toward good politics. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul should both be applauded for pushing their opinions regardless of their partisanship. Yet intelligence should not be attached to public opinion in order to be deemed good. For example, opponents claim that the roving wiretap, which allows intelligence officers to secretly collect data on multiple technologies using one warrant provided by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) violates the search warrant law. This argument has only arrived in the past five years, nearly a decade after the Patriot Act’s initial provisions were established, and it’s clear that the public has swayed Congress to erase the roving wiretap from law.
Congressmen, however, rarely read the laws for which they advocate. In last year’s debate regarding the Intelligence Authorization Act, many Senators did not know the language of the act. Similarly, the USA Freedom Act was passed during a time of little debate, refusing Congress the opportunity to read thoroughly through the law as national security measures went under with the expiration of the Patriot Act. Members of Congress therefore had little time to think, simply relying on biased media sources to invoke their opinions. The methods of intelligence agencies, on the other hand, remain consistently good. Those who recall the FBI stating that no terrorist plot was foiled are wrong; terrorists are not foiled minutes before the world explodes. [NA2] They are foiled when the smallest movement is made and officers intervene. Continual input of intelligence and analysis, such as bulk metadata collection, is required for American protection. Thus, public influence on Congress has pushed the government to bow down to “liberties” in exchange for easier access to terrorist intelligence.
But, starting June 2015, the Patriot Act has weakened considerably, and Section 215 and other ‘controversial’ notions of the act have vanished, at least until 2019. Long-term stability for America and its allies is out of the question – without reliable intelligence, non-military peace becomes opaque. As Congress continues to push for an even greater breakdown of the Patriot Act, the United States sheds its advantage as a world superpower.
The solution to the Patriot Act’s ambiguous nature should not have been the Freedom Act; rather, Congress should have rewritten the existing Patriot Act to specify more detailed regulations on security measures. The changes that the Freedom Act has brought now require more time and resources, and it’s Congress who needs to understand the effects of limited national security. Congress’ job is to keep up with the public and to understand the public’s growing access to technology – the Freedom Act simply shows Congress’s bias towards only one part of its job.
- Melinda Chen