- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Senate on Wednesday sent a mixed message about limiting the government’s power to spy on Americans using some of the tools it used to surveil members of President Trump’s 2016 campaign in the Russia probe.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would allow independent legal analysts to scrutinize requests by the FBI and other intelligence to spy on Americans under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

But they blocked a separate measure to shield Americans’ internet browsing and search histories from warrantless surveillance.

Senators will vote Thursday on whether to approve the FISA reform bill. If they do, it will head back to the House, where it is unclear whether the changes will be enough to please civil liberties hawks in Congress.

The modest tweak to the House-passed bill likely won’t be enough to avoid a veto when it hits Mr. Trump’s desk.

The president backs FISA reforms, saying the Obama administration abused the 1978 law for gathering foreign intelligence in the U.S. to spy on his campaign.

Mr. Trump, however, has not explicitly said what changes he wants.

The two votes Wednesday were the first in a series of at least three proposed reforms that privacy hawks wanted to add to a House bill that would reauthorize three domestic surveillance provisions set to lapse later this month.

The third amendment, from Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, would bar the FISA court from authorizing surveillance on American citizens and will be debated Thursday before the Senate votes on final passage of the FISA reform package.

Lawmakers voted 59-37 to reject the amendment blocking the government from spying on Americans’ internet browsing. The bill needed 60 votes to pass.

Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, proposed the amendment aimed at curbing government surveillance powers.

Mr. Wyden said the proposal was vital to curbing government surveillance power.

“The warrantless collection of Americans’ web browsing history offers endless opportunities for abuse,” he said. “All it would take is some innocent American’s web browsing history to be deemed relevant to an investigation and the government’s off to the races collecting all of that personal information.”

“For any number of reasons the web browsing history of that American could reveal such embarrassing information that the person would be humiliated for years to come, and of course, be used against him or her,” he said.

Attorney General William Barr and several intelligence agencies endorsed the House bill, arguing the FISA provisions are critical to stopping terror attacks and other foreign threats.

Opponents say the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect Americans’ civil liberties.

The FISA provisions had expired March 15 after senators left down without a deal. But a compromise measure extended the provisions until May 30 so senators could have time to hammer out a deal.

Lawmakers voted 77-19 to approve an amendment allowing a legal expert to counter the government’s allegations before the court. The proposal was sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

Mr. Leahy urged his colleagues to pass his amendment. He said the court falls short of protecting Americans’ right to due process.

“I have no doubt the intelligence professionals work very hard. They’re dedicated to protecting Americans’ basic due process rights,” he said. “But I can’t escape the conclusion that the rules are simply not good enough and a process that operates in total secrecy with no checks on the government’s allegations or portrayal of facts at issue is bound to fall short.”

Privacy hawks on the right and the left praised the Senate move to add more legal scrutiny of FISA applications, which now must win approval in the Democrat-run House.

Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the Senate passage of the amendment “a critical victory.”

“After many years of just rubber-stamping laws used to commit civil liberties violations, Congress has overwhelmingly passed changes that will help ensure that government claims before a secret intelligence court do not go unchecked,” she said.

Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, said the amendment was an “important reform.”

“Americans targeted under FISA will more often have someone advocating for their rights during these secret proceedings, and the likelihood is greatly decreased that intelligence agencies can abuse their surveillance power and get away with it,” he said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 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