The Senate on Thursday bolstered legal protections for targets of federal surveillance, but it may not be enough to avoid a veto from President Trump, who is fuming that the law was used to spy on his 2016 campaign.
Senators voted 80-16 to approve a House bill that would reauthorize critical provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
FISA is a 1970s law that enables the federal government to surveil Americans and foreigners, both domestically and abroad, suspected of national security threats.
Three critical provisions expired in March amid a fierce debate in Congress and the onset of the coronavirus crisis.
Before making its way to Mr. Trump’s desk, the bill will make a pitstop in the House for lawmakers to consider the changes made in the Senate. The House likely will tinker with the bill some more and then pass it again.
What happens when the bill lands before Mr. Trump is much murkier. The president has not said if he would sign it and has complained about the House version.
“Many Republican Senators want me to veto the FISA bill until we found out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
The president has not said explicitly what he wants in a FISA overhaul bill, but he has seethed over the Obama-era FBI using it to surveil former campaign aide Carter Page.
Attorney General William Barr has endorsed the House bill, even playing a key role in negotiations to pass compromise legislation. Mr. Barr had initially pushed lawmakers for a simple extension of the expiring FISA provisions, promising to take steps internally to reform the law.
The stamp of approval from one of Mr. Trump’s top deputies may be enough to mollify his concerns.
The Senate this week voted 77-19 to add language to the House bill that would enable outside legal counsel to scrutinize FBI surveillance requests.
The proposal from Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, was seen as a win for privacy advocates.
Mr. Lee said if his proposal had been enacted in 2016, the FISA Court would have been required to appoint a legal adviser to challenge the FBI’s request to monitor Mr. Page.
The Justice Department, however, said the amendment weakens its ability to monitor alleged terrorists.
“We appreciate the Senate’s reauthorization of three expired national security authorities. As amended, however, H.R. 6172 would unacceptably degrade our ability to conduct surveillance of terrorists, spies and other national security threats,” said Marc Raimondi, the department’s national security spokesman.
Senators rejected two other amendments championed by privacy advocates on both sides of the aisle.
In a 59-37 vote Wednesday, senators blocked a proposal that would prohibit the government from spying on Americans’ internet browsing and search history without a warrant.
The amendment offered by Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, narrowly fell short of the 60-vote threshold.
Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, on Thursday called for his colleagues to reconsider the Daines-Wyden measure.
A second vote didn’t happen.
“Our failure to protect Americans from the federal government looking over their shoulder while they are on the internet and collecting personal information is unacceptable,” Mr. Udall said.
A second amendment also rejected by the Senate would have banned the FISA Court from approving surveillance warrants to monitor U.S. citizens.
Lawmakers voted 85-11 to block the measure by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican.
“I think we should admit that we can’t constitutionally allow Americans to be subjected to a search that doesn’t involve the Fourth Amendment,” Mr. Paul said before the vote. “I believe there is no fixing the FISA Court to make it constitutional for Americans. I believe the only solution is to exempt Americans from the FISA Court.”
The House bill does include some new privacy protections to the FISA process. It ended a deactivated program that allowed intelligence agencies to obtain with court approval Americans’ phone records.
The bill also includes stricter penalties for abusing the FISA process for political purposes or making false declarations before the court.