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Government Surveillance

House Departs After Passing USA FREEDOM; Section 215 Bulk Collection Poised To End

Today the House of Representatives departed for its Memorial Day recess having passed the USA FREEDOM Act to outlaw bulk collection under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Unless, against all odds, the Senate approves a short-term extension and the House returns from its recess to pass it before the June 1 sunset, bulk collection under Section 215 will end.

“The end of bulk collection of phone call records would be a major victory for Americans and their privacy rights,” said CDT President Nuala O’Connor. “After two years of public debate, Congress is realizing that the bulk collection program is surveillance the American public does not want and that the government does not need.”

The House is out of session and it’s unlikely to return early to consider a short-term reauthorization of Section 215 on which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seeks a vote.

“The Senate now has only two realistic choices: Pass the USA FREEDOM Act, or permit Section 215 to expire,” said CDT Advocacy Director and Senior Counsel Harley Geiger. “If the Senate votes down USA FREEDOM, it will result in the end of not just bulk collection, but also of more targeted surveillance activities conducted under Section 215. Then we’re likely to see a long and contentious debate that may go well beyond Section 215 authorities.”

If the Senate fails to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, Congress will be forced to take up the difficult task of responding to a sunset of Section 215. As CDT and the Congressional Research Service have noted, after June 1, Congress would have to enact new surveillance authorities – rather than simply approve an extension of an existing authority.

“Two-thirds of the House Members never voted to create Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act – it’s risky to assume they will vote to re-instate it in the same form amidst broad public opposition to NSA bulk collection that the government claims it authorized,” said Geiger. “It’s time to stop playing a game of chicken and address this issue.”