Disgruntled, but not terribly surprised.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Tuesday that he will allow the Senate to vote on the USA Freedom Act, the surveillance reform bill that the House overwhelmingly passed last week, but that he had threatened to block. Congress only had a few days left to act before some key provisions of the Patriot Act expired, including the one the NSA has said gives it the authority to collect in bulk the phone records of Americans.
The bill would end that bulk collection, forcing the NSA to make specific requests to the phone companies instead. The bill also requires more disclosure -- and a public advocate -- for the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, while otherwise extending the three provisions that were due to sunset on June 1.
On the one hand, the bill would impose restrictions on the National Security Agency for the first time since the 1970s. On the other hand, in the context of the incredibly broad mass surveillance here and around the globe exposed by Snowden, the change would be minimal. It would do nothing to limit NSA programs officially targeted at foreigners that "incidentally" collect vast amounts of American communications. It would not limit the agency's mass surveillance of non-American communications at all.
Passing the Freedom Act would hardly be a defeat. As the New York Times wrote in a second-day story after the House vote -- headlined "Why the N.S.A. Isn't Howling Over Restrictions" -- the key "reform" in the bill was actually proposed by the then-NSA director Keith Alexander.
So why was McConnell fighting so hard to extend the Patriot Act as is?
Maybe because if the hardliners gave up without a fight, it wouldn't look like the reformers had prevailed.
So when the Freedom Act passes, after a ferocious fight at the buzzer, it will look like the reformers have won, when in fact it's tails, they lose.