May 22, 2014 · 5 minutes

The United States government's farcical attempts to curtail the National Security Agency continue today as the House of Representatives passes the USA Freedom Act. The bill, which will now head to the Senate, was originally meant to protect against wanton spying on American citizens, but after heavily editing, the act is largely insignificant. (It's interesting how the acts with patriotic names end up causing the most problems -- or is the passing of the Patriot Act and this new Freedom Act not enough to count as a trend?)

The government has made a game out of its ability to promise one thing and deliver another. It has said that intelligence agencies should be more transparent about their activities, but it is also targeting journalists and whistleblowers with the Espionage Act more than previous administrations. It has said that the country should have an informed debate about the NSA programs that have grabbed headlines for the last year, but it often converses with the public through little more than official reports and careful statements that mean next to nothing. Now it has said that the NSA's spying should be brought to a stop, but then allowed a toothless bill containing much fewer reforms than it did when it made its way through the House.

Companies like Google and Facebook have pulled their support from the revised bill, which won't allow them to share as much information about requests for their customers' data as previous drafts. Meanwhile, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have also pulled their support for the revised bill, which has looser restrictions on NSA activities than before. The House has taken a flawed-but-"agreeable" attempt to protect Americans and ruined it. Bound by chains, the USA Freedom Act is now a prisoner of the government's hollow promises.

Reactions from around the Web

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's reaction to the changes shows their deep flaws:

Since the introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that has over 140 cosponsors, Congress has been clear about its intent: ending the mass collection of Americans' calling records. Many members of Congress, the President's own review group on NSA activities, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board all agree that the use of Section 215 to collect Americans' calling records must stop. Earlier today, House Leadership reached an agreement to amend the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act in ways that severely weaken the bill, potentially allowing bulk surveillance of records to continue. The Electronic Frontier Foundation cannot support a bill that doesn't achieve the goal of ending mass spying. We urge Congress to support uncompromising NSA reform and we look forward to working on the Senate's bipartisan version of the USA FREEDOM Act.
The Verge writes that the White House's support for the revised bill should have been the first sign of its troubles:
On Wednesday, the White House threw its weight behind the bill, urging quick passage in the House and Senate. 'The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,' it said. 'Overall, the bill’s significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system.' Given the Obama administration’s lackluster privacy reforms so far, this wasn’t a particularly good sign.
The Guardian notes that the Freedom Act has been troubled from the beginning:

As recently as April, the Freedom Act looked all but dead, a casualty of unstated opposition from House leadership of both parties and the Obama administration, which had frustrated the bill’s backers by not offering any guidance on it. The bill, bottled up in the judiciary committee, had support of nearly 150 legislators, and was the most viable legislative vehicle to restrict government surveillance since 9/11.

A move by NSA allies on Capitol Hill to push a rival bill backfired, however, resulting in the bill moving out of committee. But a redoubled effort by the NSA’s backers saw a compromise pass – one that diluted many of the Freedom Act’s privacy protections, such as a prohibition on the NSA searching through its communications content databases for Americans’ identifying information, in exchange for becoming a consensus bill.

Pando weighs in

On the White House report claiming that improved transparency will help the country:

The government can release as many “transparent” press releases as it wants. It can allow technology companies — many of which spy on Internet users for profit — to disclose information they were previously forced to keep secret. And it can release reports like this one, which detail the many problems with the government’s activities while simultaneously justifying them with the familiar anti-terrorism rhetoric. But unless those press releases, those “transparency” reports, and those review panels are as revealing as leaked government documents vetted by seasoned reporters and their sources, this will simply become the latest example of the government’s lip service to transparency and secret devotion to silencing whistleblowers.

To paraphrase the famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to George Orwell: transparency is publishing something you would prefer the world didn’t know, everything else is public relations. On the government's failure to commit to transparency following that report's release:

The Obama administration has continually promised to be more transparent about the government’s activities, but those promises hide an administration that withholds and classifies more documents than any of its predecessors, according to the Associated Press.

Despite repeated calls for the government to be more honest with the public after reports based on the Edward Snowden documents were published, the Associated Press report says that the administration withheld or censored more documents in 2013 than any other year in Obama’s two-term presidency. The administration censored or “fully denied access” to some 36 percent of the Freedom of Information Act requests it received, according to the report. On the government's claims that the NSA is "just" collecting metadata:

The study is another indictment of the United States government’s claims that gathering phone call metadata from millions of Americans is not an invasion of privacy. It doesn’t matter that no-one is listening to those phone calls. Unless the second most well-funded intelligence agency is less capable than two graduate students — which is doubtful, given its ability to surveil millions of people — metadata can be used to infer all kinds of information.

But anyone following the NSA revelations and their ensuing debates already knew that. The American Civil Liberties Union previously published a declaration from Princeton professor Edward Felten, who wrote that “many details of our lives can be gleaned by examining those [metadata] trails, which often yield information more easily than do the actual content of our communications.” The Guardian explained the information shared as metadata when people use their smartphones, search the Web, or access Facebook. The idea that anyone can say that the NSA is “just” collecting metadata with a straight face was proven ludicrous a while ago. [Photo by Austin Kirk]