The hidden side of politics

Senate clears key government surveillance tool shortly after midnight lapse

Reported by Washington Times:

The Senate voted to reauthorize the government’s chief surveillance tool early Saturday, clearing the measure for President Biden’s signature with only a brief lapse of the spying power.

The legislation extends Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for two years.

It passed 60-34 with bipartisan support, but 16 Republicans and 17 Democrats voted against it, arguing the surveillance tool, first authorized in 2008, lacks sufficient privacy protections.

The legislation reauthorizes the government’s ability to collect troves of data—emails, texts, and phone calls—from foreigners living abroad, all without obtaining a warrant.

It’s considered a critical tool in preventing terrorism, drug trafficking and violent extremism.

Americans’ communications sometimes get scooped up, too, which has raised privacy concerns among lawmakers and divided the Senate.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan applauded the bill’s final passage, calling Section 702 “one of the United States’ most vital intelligence collection tools.”

“The president will swiftly sign the bill into law, ensuring that our security professionals can continue to rely on Section 702 to detect grave national security threats and use that understanding to protect the United States,” he said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the law did not go far enough to protect Americans from getting swept up in the data collection and, he contended, it is frequently misused by the government.

In one year, Mr. Durbin said, 3.4 million American conversations were monitored by federal law enforcement, all without obtaining warrants.

“Yes, we can protect the constitution and the Bill of Rights and keep our country safe,” Mr. Durbin said. But we’ve got to be mindful, and this requires vigilance.”

Senators opposed to reauthorizing the surveillance law had been dragging out the debate time, threatening to push the vote to Saturday, which would have allowed the law to lapse for several hours, potentially threatening national security.

A last-minute agreement was struck with the opposing Senators to speed up the process in exchange for allowing them to introduce amendments aimed at adding privacy protections.

All six amendments required 60 votes to pass, and none of them met that threshold. The bill cleared Congress with no new privacy protections.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, called the government’s warrantless surveillance program “dreadful, wrong, and unconstitutional.” He sought support for an amendment that would have required the government to seek permission from a traditional U.S. court, not the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, when American communications are swept up.

Opponents of the last-minute amendments said reforms were included in the House before it was passed there earlier this month and sent to the Senate, including reducing the extension from five years to two years.

The top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner, of Virginia, said Mr. Paul’s amendment, “would have the effect of basically destroying section 702.” He said the law has been used to snag numerous American citizens and lawful permanent residents who have been involved in or planned terrorist acts.

“Many times you start the investigation and you don’t know if the individual is an American or a foreigner,” Mr. Warner said.

Senators also rejected an amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, that would have blocked an expansion of the surveillance law to include data centers and other new entities that handle electronic commutations.

Mr. Wyden called the expansion a “dangerous” provision that was slipped into the bill at the last minute in the House.

“If there’s one thing we know, expansive surveillance authorities will always be used and abused.”

Mr. Warner said the expansion was needed to address a telecom world that has advanced technology that didn’t exist when the law was first passed. He said the law is aimed at foreigners and prohibits the targeting of “any entity within the United States.”

Senators also rejected Mr. Durbin’s amendment, which would have required the government to obtain a warrant to seek information about Americans swept up in foreign surveillance.

After all the amendments were defeated, the bill passed just minutes after the midnight lapse. Sen. Charles Schumer, New York Democrat, praised Senators for doing “the right thing for our country’s safety.”

Mr. Warner acknowledged the surveillance tool, “still needs improvement,” and said he planned to work with critics to make it “more effectively and efficiently overseen.”

Source:Washington Times