- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2018

Senators voted Thursday to approve a six-year renewal of the government’s chief foreign spying program, delivering a win to security hawks who got most of what they wanted in the deal.

The bill, which now heads to President Trump for his signature, extends Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which empowers the government to collect phone calls, emails and other communications of foreign targets overseas.

The 65-34 vote showed strong support for the program, though even some of those who backed the bill had sought better protections for Americans whose communications are snared in the dragnet.

The intelligence community has said 702 powers and the data they’re able to collect under it are among the most critical tools they have in the fight against terrorists. They downplayed fears of abuse.

“It enables our intelligence community to collect communications from foreign terrorists, on foreign soil, who threaten America and our allies,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who led support of the bill. “Make no mistake, Section 702 does not allow the targeting of American citizens.”

Congress was facing a Friday deadline, when Section 702 was slated to expire.

Most of the opposition Thursday came from Democrats, though seven Republicans broke with GOP leadership to vote against the reauthorization, saying it didn’t go far enough to protect U.S. citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. They were Sens. Steve Daines of Montana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.

The House passed the bill last week, so Senate action was the final step on Capitol Hill.

Under the current program and the new law, the targets for collection are supposed to be foreigners who are outside the U.S. But any American talking with a target can have those emails, phone calls, videos and text messages scooped up and stored.

The new bill requires a warrant to access information about Americans, but only after a criminal investigation unrelated to national security is established.

Civil liberties advocates had pushed for a shorter renewal and wanted expanded warrant requirements, saying they feared federal investigators will easily find ways to circumvent the intent of the law and could even use the snooping powers to target minorities unfairly.

A coalition of liberals and conservatives attempted to mount a filibuster earlier this week to try to force a chance to offer more protections. But that effort fell short.

Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the bill, said senators gave the Trump administration broad powers to spy on Americans.

“No president should have this power, much less one who has endorsed policies designed to unfairly target critics, immigrants, and minority communities,” she said. “We will use every tool at our disposal to stop the continued abuse of these spying powers.”

Her organization, along with other civil liberty groups, are currently challenging Section 702’s warrantless bulk collection in court.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2015, but Thursday’s vote reinvigorates their fight.

The intelligence community had sought a full permanent reauthorization with no changes. As it stands now, the bill extends the program through December 2023.

The bill also would authorize the intelligence community to collect communications of people who aren’t targets but merely talking about targets. The government would have to deliver a plan for “abouts” collection to Congress and get approval from the secret FISA court before beginning that collection.

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