Spying law might quietly die

The US government seems set to let a particular clause in its Patriot Act die off, which means that all that spying it is doing on the world will suddenly become illegal.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act will be allowed to expire, as members of both parties in Congress are lining up behind anti-NSA protesters.

Senator James Sensenbrenner, who drafted the law has warned that the legal justification for the NSA’s wholesale domestic surveillance program will disappear next summer if the White House does not restrict the way the NSA uses its power.

What this will mean is that unless the White House changes the scale of the surveillance programmes for which the National Security Administration (NSA) the agency will be acting illegally.

Provisions of Section 215, allow the NSA to collect metadata about phone calls made within the US, and give the government a “very useful tool” to track connections among Americans that might be relevant to counterterrorism investigations.

However most Americans were shocked at the scale of the surveillance and lengths to which the NSA has pushed its limits was a “shock”. Now Sensenbrenner has written the USA Freedom Act, a bill to restrict the scope of both Section 215 and the NSA programs, which has attracted 130 co-sponsors. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has sponsored a similar bill in the Senate.

Review panels appointed by the White House have also slammed Section 215 and the scope of the programs the NSA justifies under it. It did not like the NSA practice of collecting telephone metadata in bulk “raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties,” “lacks a viable legal foundation,” and has demonstrated only limited value.

The US Justice Department has yet to work out what it will do if Section 215 dies, or if any of the Freedom bills become law. It could suddenly find that all that investment it made in spying technology and databases will have to be scrapped. Of course, it could always assassinate key congressmen pretending to be terrorists and hope that inspires the rest to renew Section 215, we guess that is plan B and it will have to move fast if it wants that sort of campaign to pay off.