ABC The Drum
The United States has just dialled back powers of surveillance that were granted to agencies in the aftermath of 9/11. Meanwhile, Australia is moving in the opposite direction, writes
Was that a sudden chill that passed across the United States as midnight ticked over in Washington today?
To hear defenders of the American security state tell it, the morning of June 1 arrived upon a newly exposed America unprotected by key provisions of the USA Patriot Act for the first time since October 2001.
Passed in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act is a lengthy and complicated bill that has given the US government a raft of powers to protect national security, and civil libertarians have long argued that these overstep the mark when it comes to defending the rights of ordinary Americans.
For a long time, the United States was too fearful of the prospect of further terror attacks to give much credit to those concerns. In 2006 and again in 2010 and 2011, Congress extended with little debate controversial provisions in the law that had been set to automatically expire, particularly one the National Security Agency used to authorise its collection of the phone records of millions of Americans.
In 2015, however, memories of 9/11 are receding, rogue NSA contractor Edward Snowden has revealed just how extensive those surveillance programs have been, and a subset of Republicans led by presidential aspirant Senator Rand Paul are pushing back against members of their party whom they see as too willing to sacrifice fundamental rights for national security.
Paul has been at the centre of the most recent stoush over the law, and his long speeches on the US Senate floor have disrupted efforts by the Republican Congressional leadership to temporarily extend the Patriot Act's controversial provisions, ultimately resulting in their expiration today.
America is not expected to be without these programs for long, and, the more dire warnings from security hawks and the Obama administration notwithstanding, even their expiry will do little to affect the day-to-day intelligence work of the NSA in the short-term.
This week, the Senate will vote on and almost certainly pass the USA Freedom Act, which has already been passed by the House of Representatives and reauthorises the government to continue many of the activities critics see as an unacceptable invasion of American privacy — albeit with added oversight and restrictions.
Paul does not support the USA Freedom Act, and there is plenty about it for civil liberties advocates to dislike. But its passage is not business-as-usual, and offers a key point of contrast between the United States and Australia.
With both countries sharing intelligence under the Five Eyes arrangement and engaging in public debates over government surveillance of the communications of ordinary citizens, it is tempting to see America and Australia as marching in lockstep when it comes to national security.
But the current debate in Washington demonstrates how different is the approach between the two nations.
In March, Australia's Parliament gave police a swathe of new powers to collect and retain metadata relating to the communications of Australians. Some disagreement over how to protect journalists' sources aside, the Australian legislation was supported by both major parties. More contentious but no less significant was Prime Minister Tony Abbott's proposal last week that the Government be empowered to revoke the citizenship of some Australians accused of terrorism.
In Washington, though, the drive is to wind back government powers of surveillance, which politicians from both parties, the majority of Americans, and even the president charged with overseeing them agree are too extensive.
The USA Freedom Act is not by any means an ideal reform, and civil libertarian groups are divided over it. Some say that it demonstrates real progress and accountability, and even helps restrain provisions of the Patriot Act that did not expire today. Others argue that it does not do enough to restrict government spying powers, and might even expand them.
The powers of surveillance that US law enforcement and intelligence agencies have claimed for themselves since 2001 have always been an awkward fit for a country suspicious of government power and proud of the due process rights laid out in its founding documents as inalienable. As Washington draws haltingly back from its post-9/11 overreach, Australians should ask themselves if their government must really rush in the opposite direction.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum