Guess what’s back? The Patriot Act! Congress is deciding whether to renew a part of the law that will expire at the end of this year. Spoiler: there are a lot of opinions.
It's been a while. Remind me.
The Patriot Act was signed by Dubya weeks after 9/11. It gave the US gov new, sweeping surveillance powers to help detect potential new terror threats, and had broad support from Congress at first. But after everyone stopped saying ‘Freedom Fries,’ there were lots of questions about whether the Bush administration’s interpretation of the law went too far.
What do you mean?
When the law was signed, privacy advocates said US citizens were sacrificing too much freedom in the name of security. Supporters said it would stop more tragedies like 9/11 from happening on American soil. The debate was renewed in 2013 when Edward Snowden spilled a LOT of government secrets. The NSA became a household name, and everyone learned that it had been collecting the phone records of US citizens in bulk. And that all of that was OK under the Patriot Act.
So what happened?
President Obama and many in Congress decided it was time for a change. After a lot of procrastinating, lawmakers agreed to a new plan called the USA Freedom Act. It shifted the bulk collection of phone data from the NSA to telecom companies. Now, the NSA has to get a court's permission before they can access that data. Supporters said passing the Freedom Act was a big win for privacy and would help restore the public's trust in the gov. But critics point out that walking back the law makes it harder for the gov to prevent threats like terrorism.
What's the latest?
Part of the law is up for renewal this year. It's a section that allows the NSA to spy on electronic conversations between US citizens and people outside the US without a warrant. Now, it's up to Congress to decide whether to reauthorize it. Critics of the law – like the American Civil Liberties Union – say it's a loophole that allows the NSA to keep spying on Americans. And supporters – like President Trump and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – say it's an important part of keeping the country safe.
Since 9/11, privacy and national security have been battling it out in American politics. The outcome of this vote will reveal which way Congress is leaning nowadays.