New NSA Reform Bill Authorizes All the NSA Activity That Was Making You Angry

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 1 2013 10:10 AM

New NSA Reform Bill Authorizes All the NSA Activity That Was Making You Angry

Ron Wyden isn't very happy with the "business-as-usual brigade."

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Critics of the NSA's bulk data collection and surveillance programs have never been worried about congressional inaction. They've expected Congress to come up with something that looked like reform but actually codified and excused the practices being exposed and pilloried. That's what's always happened—every amendment or reauthorization to the 2001 USA Patriot Act has built more back doors than walls.

"We will be up against a 'business-as-usual brigade'—made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in thinktanks and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators," warned Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden last month. "Their endgame is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep. ... Privacy protections that don’t actually protect privacy are not worth the paper they're printed on."


The brigade is proceeding with its strategy. Yesterday, Wyden was one of four "no" votes on Dianne Feinstein's "FISA improvements" bill—11 "aye" votes got it out of the Intelligence Committee, where it had been marked up in secret. Julian Sanchez makes short, ugly work of it:

The bill for the first time explicitly authorizes, and therefore entrenches in statute, the bulk collection of communications records, subject to more or less the same rules already imposed by the FISA Court. It endorses, rather than prohibits, what the NSA is already doing. Moreover, it imposes those restrictions only with respect to bulk collection of communications records—which is dangerous, because it signals to the FISA Court that Congress implicitly endorses the use of Section 215 to collect other records in bulk without comparable restrictions. (The key phrase “acquisition in bulk,” incidentally, does not appear to be given any concrete definition.) 
Perhaps most troubling, the bill contains a section stipulating that bulk orders for communcations records may not acquire the contents of any communications. That sounds good, right? The problem is, under canons of judicial interpretation, a narrow and explicit prohibition on getting content under bulk orders for communications records could easily be read to imply that content can be acquired via non-bulk orders, or even via bulk orders for other types of records. 

Wyden quickly condemned the bill, too. Senate Whip Dick Durbin has his own alternative bill, but civil libertarians need to look to the House moving on that first—assuming the House can pass anything. And Feinstein's showy condemnation of the NSA's reported spying on foreign leaders can be interpreted as a fig leaf for her real work this week.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 20 2014 1:50 PM Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Dear Prudence
Oct. 20 2014 3:12 PM Terror Next Door Prudie advises a letter writer whose husband is dangerously, violently obsessed with the neighbors.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.