USA Freedumb Act: The Timing

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I’m going to do a series of more finished posts on the “compromised” version of Jim Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act, which I hereby dub the USA Freedumb Act (thanks to Fake John Schindler for the suggestion), because so many of the reforms have been gutted. Here’s the initially proposed bill. Here’s my working thread on USA Freedumb.

You will hear a great many respectable people making positive comments about this bill, comments they normally would not make. That’s because of the carefully crafted timing.

As you recall, Mike Rogers originally got the House Parliamentarian to rule that the bill could go through the House Intelligence Committee. And his bill, which I affectionately call “RuppRoge” after Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger and Scooby Doo’s “Rut Roh” phase, is genuinely shitty. Not only does it put the NSA onsite at providers and extend call records collection beyond terrorism applications, but it also extends such collection beyond call records generally. It is likely an attempt to get the US back into the Internet dragnet business. Shitty bill.

That said, in key ways RuppRoge is very similar to USA Freedumb. Both “limit” bulk collection by limiting collection to selectors (Freedumb does so across the board, including for NSLs, whereas RuppRoge does so for sensitive Business Records, call records, and Internet metadata). Both propose a similarly (IMO) flimsy FISC advocate. Both propose laughably weak FISC transparency measures. Both will include compensation and immunity for providers they don’t currently have.

Aside from three areas where RuppRoge is better — it forces agencies to update their EO 12333 proposals, doesn’t extend the PATRIOT Act, and provides a (not very useful) way to challenge certificates, all the way up to SCOTUS — and three where it is far worse — it develops more Insider Threat measures, it applies for uses beyond terrorism and beyond call records, and doesn’t include new (but now circumscribed) IG reporting  — they’re not all that different. [Correction: USA Freedumb ALSO applies beyond terrorism.]

They’re differently shitty, but both are pretty shitty.

The reason why otherwise respectable people are welcoming the shitty Freedumb bill, however, is that it gives House Judiciary Committee — with a number of real reformers on it — first pass on this bill. It’s a jurisdictional issue. It puts the jurisdiction for surveillance bills back where it belongs, at the Judiciary Committee.

Oh, by the way, one of the more extensive (in terms of text) real changes in Freedumb is it finally includes the House Judiciary Committee, along with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and Senate Judiciary Committee, among the committees that get certain kinds of reporting. Jurisdiction. (No, I can’t explain to you why it wasn’t included in the first place in 2008, and no, I can’t explain why that detail is not better known.) It gives everyone on HJC a tiny reason to support the bill, because they’ll finally get the reporting they should have gotten in 2008.

The House Intelligence Committee will consider RuppRoge the day after HJC considers Freedumb, Thursday. Which has elicited hasty (overly hasty, IMO) statements of support for Freedumb, as a way to head off the shitty RuppRoge.

Effectively, the National Security State has managed to put two differently shitty bills before Congress and forced reformers to choose. Freedumb is the better (as in less horrible) bill, and it might get better in Committee. But it’s not a runaway call. And the haste has prevented anyone from really figuring out what a central change to both programs means, which limits collection to selectors, which could be defined in very broad terms (and about which — you’ll have to take my word for now — the NSA has lied in public comments).

One more timing issue that I suspect explains the sudden activity surrounding “reform.” The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is due to release a report on Section 702 in the next month or so (its comment period for the report closed on April 11). Given the comments of David Medine, James Dempsey, and Patricia Wald at hearings, I strongly suspect PCLOB will recommend reforms — at least — to back door searches, and possibly to upstream collection. Both are items which were gutted as USA Freedom became Freedumb. (In addition, two aspects that would have expanded PCLOB’s authorities — giving it a role in picking the FISC advocate and giving it subpoena power — have been removed.) So in the same way that President Obama rushed to reaffirm NSA’s unified structure, in which the Information Assurance Division and Cybercommand functions are unified with the more general NSA spying function, before his handpicked Review Group recommended they be split, this seems to be a rush to pre-empt any recommendations PCLOB makes.

Ultimately, these two shitty bills are destined to be merged in conference anyway, and reformers seem to have given up 75% of the field before we get started.

Which means just about the only “reform” we’ll get are actually tactical fixes to help the Security State deal with legal and technical issues they’ve been struggling with.

The USA Freedumb Act has become — with DiFi’s Fake FISA Fix and RuppRoge before it — the third fake reform since Edward Snowden’s leaks first got published. Wearing down the reformers seems to be working.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

2 replies
  1. C says:

    I suspect that it is not just about wearing down the reformers although that is, I agree, working. It is also about the election cycle. This issue does not help anyone. Neither the Ds nor Rs want to touch it or be tarred with it and neither one occupies the moral high ground, or what they care about which is the tactical advantage. I suspect that they just want to “get it done” so that they can go back to trolling each other over Obamacare.

    On this issue they, Congress, have no real power because any law they pass just gets ignored and violations are unenforced, and they are largely fine with that.

  2. Bob Stapp says:

    “Wearing down the reformers…”

    Wear ’em down. Outlast ’em. Those few words capture the master strategy that has succeeded in turning the United States into a panopticon of control beyond the wildest imagination of Jeremy Bentham. And, I must admit, it is indeed a truly brilliant strategy. Those of us who must spend most of our energy and time just living our lives cannot possibly push back against those who have virtually unlimited resources and all the time in the world to get what they want.

    I have watched helplessly as this strategy has been rolled out throughout my now 66-year lifetime and we are now at a real turning point. The gates are almost closed and our chances of peaceful change are quickly evaporating. When the “ship hits the sand” it’s going to be nothing short of apocalyptic but, on the other hand, maybe that’s precisely what’s needed.

    I find Chris Hedges dark vision to be sublimely creepy but, as distasteful as I find it, I can’t help but agree.

    “The goals of corporate capitalism are increasingly indistinguishable from the goals of the state. The political and economic systems are subservient to corporate profit. Debate between conventional liberals and conservatives has been replaced by empty political theater and spectacle. Corporations, no matter which politicians are in office, loot the Treasury, escape taxation, push down wages, break unions, dismantle civil society, gut regulation and legal oversight, control information, prosecute endless war and dismantle public institutions and programs that include schools, welfare and Social Security. And elected officials, enriched through our form of legalized corporate bribery, have no intention of halting the process.

    […]

    Our corporate masters will not of their own volition curb their appetite for profits. Human misery and the deadly assault on the ecosystem are good for business. These masters have set in place laws that, when we rise up—and they expect us to rise up—will permit the state to herd us like sheep into military detention camps. Section 1021(b)(2) [of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) ] is but one piece of the legal tyranny now in place to ensure total corporate control. The corporate state also oversees the most pervasive security and surveillance apparatus in human history. It can order the assassination of U.S. citizens. It has abolished habeas corpus. It uses secret evidence to imprison dissidents… . It employs the Espionage Act to criminalize those who expose abuses of power. A ruling elite that accrues for itself this kind of total power, history has shown, eventually uses it.”

    While I greatly appreciate your in-depth analyses, Marcy, and the amazing insight and attention to detail you bring to the most complex and arcane subject matter, when I step back and look at the bigger picture, I despair.

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