The Patriot Act debate is filled with exaggerations and political calculation over a legislation that, in the name of protecting U.S. citizens from terrorism, is a government invasion of the individual’s privacy. The animosity against the government raised by the Edward Snowden revelations has brought a staunch opposition to renew the legislation. However, this opposition is unable to stop the USA Freedom Act, which, with minor changes, is as invasive as the one it is trying to replace.
As of today, parts of the Patriot Act have expired, and the National Security Agency (NSA) stopped obtaining millions of data pieces from phone calls made by Americans that are not suspects of anything. This should not be a cause for worry. The Justice Department’s Inspector General said in a report a few years ago that the phone calls program never stopped any actual plan of attack.
It all started when the House of Representatives and the White House, in an unusual cooperation, drafted the USA Freedom Act, which modifies the Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The government collection of phone information is eliminated, but not the clauses allowing the FBI to obtain information from taxes, health, education and other “business records,” without the need of a judicial order. The government will not obtain the phone information directly; that job will be handled by the telephone companies, which will provide the data in case the government asks for it.
This is why the dispute between the Senate Republican leadership, which wanted to renew the Patriot Act unchanged, and the House Republicans with the USA Freedom Act, is basically a matter of appearances. Only GOP senator Rand Paul is really going beyond the rhetoric with his libertarian opposition. He is taking heat from his own colleagues, but this shows an ideological consistency that serves his presidential aspirations for 2016.
A thorough evaluation of what has worked and what has not in the Patriot Act, which was approved under the shadow of 9/11, would have been the right thing to do. But national security has become an excuse for flag waving and scaring people into accepting the unacceptable. In this post-Snowden era, a couple of things have changed so that everything remains virtually the same.