With the judicial wind at his back and gathering bipartisan support in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), writing in Time magazine Thursday, called on his Senate colleagues to redraft the "expiring eavesdropping provision in the so-called USA Patriot Act and include strong new limits to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people."
Earlier in the day, a federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency's bulk phone data collection program is illegal. The three-judge panel said in its decision that the NSA had exceeded the boundaries of the Patriot Act's controversial Section 215, which the justices said "cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it."
Even with the ruling, the fight for meaningful reform will come down to negotiations in Congress and, likely, approval from the White House. Sanders, who voted against the Patriot Act as House member in 2001 and 2005, then again refused to back its reauthorization when he arrived in the Senate, used Thursday's decision and the pending deadline to raise the stakes:
Do we really want to live in a country where the NSA gathers data on virtually every single phone call in the United States — including as many as 5 billion cellphone records per day? I don't. Do we really want our government to collect our emails, see our text messages, know everyone's Internet browsing history, monitor bank and credit card transactions, keep tabs on people's social networks? I don't.
The alternative: Section 215, which gave rise to the secret surveillance programs disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in June 2013, is due to expire on June 1. Civil libertarians, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued for allowing the date to pass with no action, which will effectively kill all of the programs active under its auspices.
That, however, is an unlikely scenario, especially as the bipartisan USA Freedom Act continues to advance through both chambers of Congress. The new bill is essentially a revised version of the Patriot Act with stronger restrictions and safeguards on government surveillance programs. It passed the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee a week ago and has the support of at least five GOP senators, according to the New York Times.
Earlier Thursday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for the reform bill.
Sanders has not said how he will vote on the USA Freedom Act, but a passage from his Time essay suggests he would support re-upping the government's surveillance powers provided the reforms were sufficiently sturdy (emphasis ours):
"Under legislation I have proposed [in 2013], intelligence and law enforcement authorities would be required to establish a reasonable suspicion, based on specific information, in order to secure court approval to monitor business records related to a specific terrorism suspect. In renewing the surveillance law, Congress also should reassert its proper role overseeing how intelligence agencies use, or abuse, the law that our intelligence community has operated in a way that even they knew the American public and Congress would not approve.
What it means for 2016: Clinton voted for the initial Patriot Act during her time as a senator from New York in 2001 and again in 2006. Two years later, during her first campaign for president, she opposed a bill to further expand the NSA's surveillance powers. As the Washington Post explains, her position is nearly impossible to pin down.
For Sanders, the issue is more cut and dry. He opposes the overwhelming surveillance capabilities derived by the government from Section 215. But unlike more hard-line privacy advocates, Sanders has expressed his willingness to negotiate with the intelligence community for a more transparent program.
However the debate unfolds in Congress as the clock ticks down over the coming weeks, expect Sanders to keep these questions alive as his primary fight with Clinton stretches into 2016.