On Sunday night, the Senate voted 77-17 to advance the USA Freedom Act. The bill, which already passed the House 338-88, amends the Patriot Act by ending the NSA's practice of storing U.S. phone records (the date, time, duration and numbers dialed--but not the content or identity of the caller--of all calls) in a database that may be searched during national security investigations. Under the USA Freedom Act, the phone records will remain with the phone companies.
With that change ensured, Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a Republican and libertarian ally of Senator Rand Paul, quickly declared victory for Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who revealed the NSA's metadata program and many other state secrets.
"It was so difficult for Senator McConnell and Senator McCain to vote for the Freedom Act because doing anything exonerates Snowden--doing anything except reauthorization [of the Patriot Act]," Massie told reporters off the Senate floor. "That's why they never wanted to change anything. And now, that vote that just happened acknowledges that Edward Snowden was right to some degree."
McConnell and 42 Republican senators had blocked a vote on the USA Freedom before Memorial Day, hoping instead to reauthorize the Patriot Act without amending it. Critics raised concerns that under the USA Freedom Act it would be much more difficult--perhaps impossible in some cases in the future--for counterterrorism analysts to connect the dots of terrorist networks.
But with three sections of the Patriot Act set to expire at midnight Sunday, McConnell conceded in floor remarks that passing the USA Freedom Act was "the only realistic way forward." The only alternative, he said, was to "allow the program to expire altogether without attempting to replace it. That would mean disarming completely and arbitrarily, based on a campaign of disinformation, in the face of growing, aggressive, and sophisticated threats." The Senate will vote Tuesday on what McConnell called some "modest amendments that attempt to ensure the program can actually work as promised."
Senator Rand Paul, who opposes the Patriot Act altogether, was able to delay a vote on the USA Freedom Act, ensuring that three sections of the Patriot Act will expire for at least a day or two. "People here in town think I'm making a huge mistake," Paul said during a speech on the Senate floor Sunday night. "Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me."
After speaking for his allotted hour, Paul left the Senate with Congressman Massie and Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan, who had been in the Capitol to prevent the House from taking any further action on the Patriot Act. The three libertarians, satisfied that they'd done everything they could to stop the Patriot Act, hopped into Massie's Tesla and drove off into the sunset.