Senate approves bill to reauthorize foreign surveillance programs

The Senate on Friday approved a bill reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in a 73-23 vote.

The bill will extend for five years the ability of U.S. intelligence authorities to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists overseas without first getting permission from a court. 

The House already approved the legislation, meaning the Senate vote will send the bill to President Obama's desk. The president is expected to sign the bill.

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Supporters said the Senate needed to act quickly so that Obama could sign the legislation and extend the programs before they expired at the end of the year. 

Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) urged his colleagues not to support any amendments because he said the bill would then have to be reconsidered by the House. He said unless the House version passed, surveillance would halt after Dec. 31, posing a threat to national security.

“We’ve got to get this bill on the desk of the president by Dec. 31,” Chambliss said on the floor Friday.

Opponents argued the bill should have been amended to protect the rights of Americans who might be surveilled by intelligence agencies monitoring the calls of foreigners. 

Before final passage, the Senate voted against an amendment from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), which would have required the Director of National Intelligence to report to Congress on whether any U.S.-based email and phone communications have been picked up in the process of conducting overseas surveillance, and whether any wholly domestic U.S. communications have been swept up under the program.

Wyden said intelligence officials have so far failed to provide such an estimate.

“It is not real oversight when the United States Congress cannot get a yes or no answer as to whether a list exists of law abiding citizens who have had their communications swept up under this law,” Wyden said before the vote on his amendment Friday. “This amendment gives us the opportunity to do real oversight by getting yes or no answers to questions that have been asked repeatedly.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said those incidences have been “few” and “inadvertent.”

“The goal of this amendment is to make public a very important national security program that is classified,” Feinstein said on the floor Friday. “This amendment would make public names and numbers of names that should not be public at this time.”

The Senate considered three amendments Thursday from Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). All three failed to pass. They would have extended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for three years instead of five, declassified FISA court opinions, and clarified that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects U.S. citizens from intelligence-related searches done overseas.