Under the bipartisan bill, which passed 338 to 88, the Patriot Act would be changed to prohibit bulk collection by the National Security Agency of metadata charting telephone calls made by Americans. However, while the House version of the bill would take the government out of the collection business, it would not deny it access to the information. It would be in the hands of the private sector — almost certainly telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, which already keep the records for billing purposes and hold on to them from 18 months to five years.Now it goes on to the Senate, where it faces a slightly more uphill climb because Majority Leader McConnell opposes these changes to the "metadata" program, along with some of the more hawkish members of his caucus. The trouble is, if Congress does nothing, this portion of the Patriot Act expires on May 30th and the whole program will end. So we're likely to see some interesting dynamics about it all over the next couple of weeks.
So for the N.S.A., which has been internally questioning the cost effectiveness of bulk collection for years, the bill would make the agency’s searches somewhat less efficient, but it would not wipe them out. With the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the spy agencies or the F.B.I. could request data relevant to an investigation.
So what is President Obama's position on all this? That's where Steve Benen's reporting was disappointing (to say the least).
As for the Obama administration, don’t look for executive-branch officials to get too heavily engaged, at least not yet. White House officials – and the NSA - have signed off on the House bill as an acceptable compromise, but in all likelihood, the West Wing probably wouldn’t mind the Senate’s approach of leaving the status quo intact, either.Benen provides no links or supporting information for this opinion. And the facts show otherwise.
First of all, the White House has issued a statement in support of the USA Freedom Act. Secondly, the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence have written a letter in support of it. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - back in January 2014 (long before the USA Freedom Act was written) President Obama gave a speech in which he outlined the steps he was going to take in response to a review of signal intelligence activities by a task force he created. Here is what he said about the "metadata" program back then:
For all these reasons, I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata...In other words, this was all President Obama's idea in the first place. Beyond the specifics of this program, that is significant because I can't remember too many times in the past when previous presidents have advocated for a reduction in their own executive power.
Because of the challenges involved, I’ve ordered that the transition away from the existing program will proceed in two steps. Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.
Next, step two, I have instructed the intelligence community and the Attorney General to use this transition period to develop options for a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that the Section 215 program was designed to address without the government holding this metadata itself. They will report back to me with options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28th. And during this period, I will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views, and then seek congressional authorization for the new program as needed.