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USA Freedom Act Fails in the Senate

The USA Freedom Act failed to pass the Senate on Saturday morning as the vote, taken just ahead of the national Memorial Day holiday weekend and a weeklong break for the US Congress, weakened under an hours-long filibuster.

Senate lawmakers voted 57-42 against the Act, with the nays citing national security concerns.

The Patriot Act’s Section 215 has been used to justify dragnet-style data collection on the part of the National Security Agency, as a tool in its efforts to identify and track down terrorist threats. Under a program first disclosed to the public by Edward Snowden, the US spy agency has systematically collected bulk metadata on millions of Americans' calls—including the numbers called and duration (but no actual conversational content). It has argued that such collection is necessary in the event that counter-terrorism measures require analysis of the data.

The Freedom Act would have ended the bulk data collection program, instead tasking telecom providers with making the information available to the NSA and law enforcement only under very narrow parameters approved by a court.

The bill passed the House earlier this month by a landslide vote of 338 to 88, but the Republican-led Senate was always expected to be a hurdle.

The move comes after a US Court of Appeals ruled that the program was illegal because the collection of all US citizens’ phone records—although not the content of calls—could not be deemed “relevant” to a particular investigation against terrorism. Therefore, Section 2015 of the Patriot Act did not authorize the NSA to collect Americans' calling records in bulk.

The appeals court did not rule on whether the surveillance violated the US Constitution, and the decision kicked it back down to Congress to address the situation legislatively. Now, however, the situation is back to square one. That said, the Patriot Act is set to expire June 1, unless Congress acts.

US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said during the floor debate that regardless of this outcome, he plans to introduce a bill related to data collection by both the private industry and government.  

"I intend to shortly introduce legislation which will call for a comprehensive review of data collection by public and private entities and the impact that that data is having on the American people," he said. “It is absolutely imperative that as a nation we begin a serious conversation which includes some of the most knowledgeable people in this country, people who know about what technology can do today, what it can do tomorrow, and people who are concerned about civil liberties and privacy rights, and law enforcement officials, and national security people, and members of the Congress.”

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