The USA Freedom Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama yesterday, marks the first piece of legislation to rein in surveillance powers in the wake of disclosures two years ago by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and the national debate he catalyzed, the Washington Post reports. It comes as Obama is winding down the nation's wars overseas and as fears of another terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, no longer galvanize and unify lawmakers in the same way they once did. Congress and the nation are much more divided about the proper balance between liberty and security. The Senate’s inability for weeks to resolve the issue, forcing the lapse of three surveillance powers at midnight Sunday, reflected the fissures between those who think that the terrorist threat is as potent as ever and those who believe that the government has overreached in its goal to keep the nation safe.
With the passage of the USA Freedom Act, though, Congress has answered Obama's call to end the National Security Agency's bulk storage of Americans' phone data while preserving a way for the agency to obtain the records of terrorism suspects. The legislation doesn't end the surveillance debate or go as far as some members of the president's liberal base or the libertarian right would like. Some lawmakers have vowed to press for further changes to protect citizens' privacy and enhance transparency. Stewart Baker, a former NSA general counsel, said the law is a landmark and not a good one. “It is going to make the National Security Agency risk-averse in ways that the CIA has occasionally been risk-averse,” he said. “They followed the rules. They believed they were following the rules, and they got punished nonetheless.” The USA Freedom Act not only ends NSA bulk collection but also narrows the collection of other types of records under the USA Patriot Act and other intelligence authorities. It increases transparency in surveillance court decisions and provides the opportunity for a public advocate in normally closed court hearings.