Senate Votes to Reauthorize Federal Surveillance Powers

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate voted 80-16 on Thursday to revive provisions in a Watergate-era federal surveillance law that had expired in March after Congress left Washington due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The bill works new accountability measures into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, a law that allows the FBI to wiretap and monitor individuals suspected of being national security threats. The reauthorization Thursday placed new requirements on the FISA court system and permanently shut down an already deactivated National Security Agency program for obtaining Americans’ phone records in terrorism investigations without judicial approval. 

The passage of H.R. 6172 in the Senate marks a victory for privacy and civil liberty advocates. The bill soared through the Senate in bipartisan fashion at a time when the majority of the congressional agenda has shifted to responding to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

It remains unclear whether Trump will sign the reauthorization when it reaches his desk, even after Attorney General William Barr helped negotiate the bill. The president has long lashed out against the Obama administration using FISA warrants to surveil Trump’s campaign supporters in 2016, and more recently ranted about the House backed version of the bill.

Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., put forward an amendment Thursday to require a FISA warrant for searching U.S. citizens, but the proposed provision failed as expected.

A bipartisan amendment to restrict federal investigators’ power to search internet history also failed Wednesday by one vote.

Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M., from the Senate floor Wednesday said the failed provision was a missed opportunity to close the window into Americans’ private information currently open to government investigators, including medical history, religious views and online shopping.

“The list goes on and on. Just imagine thinking about everything you do on the internet and your devices. That is open game,” Udall said. 

While the Senate could have reconsidered the amendment Thursday — “We should learn the lesson of October 2001 and not rush this through the Senate,” Udall warned, referring to the passage of the Patriot Act — it opted to move forward with a full vote. 

But the Senate approved another bipartisan amendment Wednesday with a 77-19 vote that opened the door for the FISA court to call for an outside review of cases seeking warrants on U.S. citizens. 

“Insofar as we decide to have these programs, we’ve got to have someone accountable in them,” Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, who put forth the amendment with Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Wednesday. “We’ve got to have a process by which the information brought to bear within the FISA court are accountable and reviewable by someone.”

While a cadre of Republicans are calling on the president to veto the bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said back in February that FISA provides “maximum protection” for the American people. 

The House had passed a 75-day extension on the FISA authorities to keep the March expiration short. The Senate will now pass the bill to the House which is currently not in session but back in Washington to conduct business related to coronavirus response efforts.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said after the bill passed the Senate that he hopes the House will quickly send it to the president’s desk. 

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