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Senate passes surveillance program renewal despite privacy concerns

U.S. officials have said the surveillance tool is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions, and foreign espionage.
Senate passes surveillance program renewal despite privacy concerns
Posted at 7:15 AM, Apr 20, 2024

After its midnight deadline, the Senate voted early Saturday to reauthorize a key U.S. surveillance law after divisions over whether the FBI should be restricted from using the program to search for Americans' data nearly forced the statute to lapse.

The legislation approved 60-34 with bipartisan support would extend for two years the program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It now goes to President Joe Biden's desk to become law. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden "will swiftly sign the bill."

"In the nick of time, we are reauthorizing FISA right before it expires at midnight," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said when voting on final passage began 15 minutes before the deadline. "All day long, we persisted and we persisted in trying to reach a breakthrough and in the end, we have succeeded."

U.S. officials have said the surveillance tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions, and foreign espionage and has also produced intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations, such as the 2022 killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

"If you miss a key piece of intelligence, you may miss some event overseas or put troops in harm's way," Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. "You may miss a plot to harm the country here, domestically, or somewhere else. So in this particular case, there's real-life implications."

The proposal would renew the program, which permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country to gather foreign intelligence. The reauthorization faced a long and bumpy road to final passage Friday after months of clashes between privacy advocates and national security hawks pushed consideration of the legislation to the brink of expiration.

Though the spy program was technically set to expire at midnight, the Biden administration had said it expected its authority to collect intelligence to remain operational for at least another year, thanks to an opinion earlier this month from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which receives surveillance applications.

Still, officials had said that court approval shouldn't be a substitute for congressional authorization, especially since communications companies could cease cooperation with the government if the program is allowed to lapse.

House before the law was set to expire, U.S. officials were already scrambling after two major U.S. communication providers said they would stop complying with orders through the surveillance program, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Attorney General Merrick Garland praised the reauthorization and reiterated how "indispensable" the tool is to the Justice Department.

"This reauthorization of Section 702 gives the United States the authority to continue to collect foreign intelligence information about non-U.S. persons located outside the United States, while at the same time codifying important reforms the Justice Department has adopted to ensure the protection of Americans' privacy and civil liberties," Garland said in a statement Saturday.

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But despite the Biden administration's urging and classified briefings to senators this week on the crucial role they say the spy program plays in protecting national security, a group of progressive and conservative lawmakers who were agitating for further changes had refused to accept the version of the bill the House sent over last week.

The lawmakers had demanded that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allow votes on amendments to the legislation that would seek to address what they see as civil liberty loopholes in the bill. In the end, Schumer was able to cut a deal that would allow critics to receive floor votes on their amendments in exchange for speeding up the process for passage.

The six amendments ultimately failed to garner the necessary support on the floor to be included in the final passage.

One of the major changes detractors had proposed centered around restricting the FBI's access to information about Americans through the program. Though the surveillance tool only targets non-Americans in other countries, it also collects communications of Americans when they are in contact with those targeted foreigners. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, had been pushing a proposal that would require U.S. officials to get a warrant before accessing American communications.

"If the government wants to spy on my private communications or the private communications of any American, they should be required to get approval from a judge, just as our Founding Fathers intended in writing the Constitution," Durbin said.

In the past year, U.S. officials have revealed a series of abuses and mistakes by FBI analysts in improperly querying the intelligence repository for information about Americans or others in the U.S., including a member of Congress and participants in the racial justice protests of 2020 and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

But members on both the House and Senate intelligence committees as well as the Justice Department warned requiring a warrant would severely handicap officials from quickly responding to imminent national security threats.

"I think that is a risk that we cannot afford to take with the vast array of challenges our nation faces around the world," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday.


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