President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act into law on Tuesday, ending the NSA's authority to sweep up the phone records of millions of Americans and reining in domestic surveillance programs provoked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
The signing of the bill followed a Senate debate so contentious that portions of the Patriot Act expired after lawmakers failed to resolve their differences by a Monday deadline. Under the new law, federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies will regain some of their surveillance powers -- but they'll be tempered by some important privacy protections.
President Obama's signature marked a victory for critics of the national security state, even as some lawmakers call for a more comprehensive overhaul of surveillance powers enacted after 9/11.
In a bipartisan joint statement released Tuesday by House leaders, representatives emphasized the wide support enjoyed by USA Freedom, with backers including the president, the attorney general, and members of the intelligence community and tech industry. "The Senate should have acted before three national security provisions expired, but we are pleased that this historic piece of legislation is now on its way to becoming the law of the land," wrote Reps. Bob Goodlatte, John Conyers, Jim Sensenbrenner, and Jerrold Nadler.
Before the legislation was approved by the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to pass three amendments to the bill. McConnell had previously vied for a straight reauthorization of the Patriot Act. He has argued that USA Freedom would hamstring the nation's law enforcement and would jeopardize national security by curtailing counterterrorism authority. All three amendments, which critics argued would weaken the surveillance and transparency reforms contained in the bill, were voted down.
Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act, praised the bill's passage as a worthwhile compromise.
While president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) Nuala O'Connor described the bill's passage as a "generational win for privacy and transparency," the CDT's advocacy director, Harley Geiger, expressed reservations. "Passage of the USA FREEDOM Act is the most significant national security surveillance reform measure in the past three decades," he said in a statement. But Geiger went on to argue for congressional action to protect Americans' emails from warrantless searches, and for an overhaul of what's known as Sec. 702, which authorizes the surveillance of international calls.
Representative Ted Lieu, one of the 88 House members who opposed USA Freedom, echoed these concerns and said he worries that the bill doesn't adequately address issues around encryption backdoors and stingray devices. Lieu told BuzzFeed News that while he is relieved the Senate did not weaken the legislation, he believes the bill is too modest in limiting the mass surveillance conducted by the NSA and the FBI.
"I am pleased that we are seeing a ratcheting back of the pendulum which I think has swung way too far to the area of fear and invasion of privacy and violations of the Constitution," he said. "I still don't think the Freedom Act has gone far enough, but it is better than the existing Patriot Act."
For some American tech companies, the government's dragnet surveillance programs have become closely associated with their own businesses, which they claim harms their global competitiveness. Ed Black, the president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a group that represents Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and many other tech giants, sees the vote as a significant first step.
"While it is inherently tempting for governments to want to use technology to gather all information possible, those who wish to live in a free society must not allow that to become the default policy," Black said on the CCIA's website.
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.