Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) started the debate over surveillance reforms with a clear plan in mind: defeat the House-backed U.S.A. Freedom Act and extend the status quo.
When that plan failed spectacularly, McConnell moved to his hastily thrown-together backup plan: amend the U.S.A. Freedom Act to make it more conservative.
This afternoon, this strategy flopped, too. The New York Times reported:
In a remarkable reversal of national security policy formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Senate voted on Tuesday to curtail the federal government’s sweeping surveillance of American phone records, sending the legislation to President Obama’s desk for his signature.
In an amusing twist, the Senate fight featured a tense showdown between two ostensible allies: Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul. The former saw the bipartisan House bill as going too far, while the latter argued the House bill didn’t go nearly far enough.
And as the dust settles on Capitol Hill, both GOP senators managed to walk away with defeats and neither got what they wanted.
The final vote on the House bill, which enjoyed President Obama’s backing and was crafted in part with the NSA’s input, was 67 to 32.
For civil libertarians, the results are mixed. On the one hand, the U.S.A. Freedom Act is a deeply rare post-9/11 example of federal lawmakers accepting some new limits on the national security state. Since the arrow has pointed almost exclusively in one direction for nearly 14 years – in the direction of more expansive surveillance and broader government authority – today’s vote is evidence of concrete progress.
On the other hand, as reforms go, the newly passed legislation is quite modest, as one might have guessed given the NSA’s endorsement of the “reforms” as written. Slate’s Fred Kaplan summarized the most notable change to the system established by the Patriot Act:
Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was passed in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, certain phone companies have been required to give the NSA bulk records known as “metadata” – the numbers, dates, times, and durations of all phone calls, but not the identities of the callers or the contents of their conversations. The NSA has then stored the metadata for up to five years and has used it to draw links between suspected terrorists and possible associates – or that’s the theory.A revision to this law, known as the USA Freedom Act, which the House passed in May, would keep these records stored with the phone companies. The NSA could gain access to the metadata only by requesting it through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – and, even then, the requests and access would be limited to specific phone numbers or information.
In effect, the new bill, soon to be law, gets the government out of the business of housing and storing the metadata.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, this was one of the worst defeats for a sitting Senate Majority Leader that we’ve seen in a long while. Not only did a bill McConnell intended to kill pass, but his own members derailed his own amendments, which he insisted were necessary for national security.
In all, if my count is right, 23 Senate Republicans voted for the House bill – 23 more than McConnell wanted.
McConnell appeared livid this afternoon on the floor. It’s easy to understand why – he picked an important fight, went several rounds, and lost them all.