Sometime around 7:30 p.m. (EST) last night, the 17-month-long national conversation over how to reform U.S. foreign intelligence surveillance authorities effectively ended when the Senate failed to clear a crucial procedural step en route to what would otherwise have been the near-certain passage of the Senate version of the USA FREEDOM Act—the surveillance reform bill that has been in the works for well over a year. The vote “failed” 58-42, falling two votes short of the 60-vote threshold necessary to invoke “cloture.” The preposterousness of the filibuster notwithstanding, I believe that this will mark the moment, in retrospect, when any real hope of meaningful surveillance reform died–and with it, any chance for many of the most important lessons from last summer’s Snowden revelations to be reflected in new U.S. policy.
Don’t get me wrong: Congress will still pass some version of the USA FREEDOM Act in at least some form. Given that section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act expires early next year, it will literally (in both Aaron Sorkin senses of the word) have to. And it’s also true, as plenty of folks have pointed out elsewhere, that even the Senate version of the bill that likely died last night was an incredibly modest (and watered-down) series of reforms compared to what had been suggested by, among others, privacy and civil liberties groups; the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB); and the President’s own review group. But if last night’s vote is any indication, (1) even this modest, watered-down reform package isn’t going to get out of Congress before the 113th Congress disappears next January 3 (at least not without some further accommodations that dilute the bill even more); and (2) the Republican leadership in the Senate, which seems to think the intelligence community is in need of even less reform than the Executive Branch itself (which endorsed the Leahy bill), will ultimately gravitate toward an even less meaningful (if not affirmatively harmful) package of reforms.
As a bellwether for what we can expect on national security policy from the 114th Congress, it’s not an especially promising one… And as a broader message about popular support for renewed oversight of (and accountability for) our foreign intelligence surveillance activities, it’s downright disheartening.