- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2020

The Senate on Monday agreed to pass a temporary extension of three expired national security tools so it could spend more time debating a broad overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The stopgap measure, which extends the national security tools controlled by FISA for 77 days, passed without intervening action or debate.

It also gives senators more time to focus on a multibillion dollar House coronavirus package as public pressure mounts for government action.

“We have the next two months to build consensus around important reforms and help everybody — Democrats and Republicans — with joining that effort,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

The last-minute deal also avoids a potential veto of a House-passed bill by President Trump, who tweeted his displeasure with that proposal.

Senators were set to reauthorize fully the critical national security tools controlled by FISA, which lapsed Sunday after a contentious debate in the House last week.

Civil liberties advocates who had opposed the House measure praised the stopgap agreement.

“The deal secured by bipartisan group of senators ensures that there will be debate on amendments that will protect Americans’ civil liberties,” said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group.

Senators were set to take up a House bill that was approved last week with a bipartisan 278-136 vote. The House bill fully reauthorized the critical national security tools controlled by FISA, which lapsed Sunday.

Upon its arrival in the Senate, the bill was quickly condemned by civil liberties hawks, including Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Opponents insisted the legislation didn’t do enough to curb government surveillance, insisting on more sweeping reforms.

Both Mr. Lee and Mr. Paul had demanded a substantial overhaul of FISA since revelations confirmed last year the FBI had abused its surveillance powers to monitor Trump campaign figure Carter Page as part of its Russian election interference probe.

“We know that the law itself as a whole is subject to abuse and at moments like this, when these provisions are expiring, it’s appropriate for us to take a broader look at overhauling the legal framework in which FISA operates,” Mr. Lee said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leadership figures had expressed support for the House bill. The Kentucky Republican touted the bill’s privacy protections and warned delaying passage could threaten national security.

Mr. McConnell said the reform bill “strikes a key balance.”

“It reauthorizes the tools which our national security requires while also imposing a number of new reforms, which basic accountability demands,” he said.

Urging passage of the stopgap measure Monday, Mr. McConnell said the three expired FISA provisions needed to be back online immediately.

“Hostile foreign intelligence surveillances — whether Chinese, Russian or Iranian — still seek to conduct operations within our borders, to recruit assets and agents among our population,” he said. “These threats will not wait around if the United States delays restocking the toolbox and so the Senate should not wait to act.”

The three expired FISA provisions extended by the legislation eliminate the need for separate warrants to wiretap multiple cell phones; allow authorities to monitor “lone wolf” threats who don’t have formal ties to terrorist organizations; and collect business records.

House-passed reforms to the FISA process that will be considered later include enhanced penalties for those who abuse the process for political purposes, increased accountability to Congress, transcripts of court proceedings, and a one-time historical review off FISA court rulings since 1979.

Mr. Trump warned last week that he could veto the bill until the origins of the Russian probe, which described as an “attempted coup” are investigated.

“Many Republican senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what that led to, and happened with the illegal, attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States and others,” the president tweeted.

Attorney General William Barr had expressed his support for the House bill and encouraged senators of both parties to vote yes on it.

Mr. Barr, a fierce critic of the Page warrant, surprisingly went against the president lobbying for the minor FISA reforms.

“The bill contains an array of new requirements and compliance provisions that will protect against abuse and misuse in the future while ensuring that this critical tool is available when appropriate to protect the safety of the American people,” he said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide