McConnell pushes measure to expand surveillance tools

McConnell pushes measure to expand surveillance tools
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Sen. Warner to introduce amendment limiting Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE is pushing for an expansion of federal surveillance powers by introducing an amendment to an annual funding bill late on Monday evening.

The proposal from the Kentucky Republican would allow the FBI to use tools known as national security letters to obtain people’s internet browsing history and other information without a warrant in the course of terrorism and federal intelligence investigations.

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It would also permanently extend a provision of the Patriot Act that was renewed until 2019 last summer, which is meant to monitor “lone wolf” extremists who are not known to have any ties to a recognized foreign terrorist group.

Both measures have been criticized by privacy and civil liberties advocates, who have fought the proposals on multiple fronts in recent months. 

Critics claim that giving the FBI additional powers would violate Americans’ privacy rights, and they note that the lone wolf provision of the Patriot Act has never been used.

But the FBI had advocated vigorously for the ability to collect people’s browsing history and other electronic data, which it has characterized as closing a loophole in current law.

“There is essentially a typo in the law that was passed a number of years ago that requires us to get records — ordinary transaction records that we can get in most contexts with a non-court order, because it doesn’t involve content of any kind — to go to the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Court to get a court order to get these records,” FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

“It would save us a tremendous amount of work hours if we could fix that, without any compromise to anyone’s civil liberties or civil rights.”

The measure would not allow the government to obtain the content of people’s communications or read their webpages without a warrant. The powers would only apply to so-called metadata, including the list of websites they visit and internet protocol addresses.

A procedural vote on the measure, which McConnell is trying to attach to a bill funding the Commerce and Justice Departments, among other areas, is expected on Wednesday.

Senate lawmakers have tried to attach similar measures to an annual intelligence policy bill and legislation updating a 1986 email privacy law. Controversy over the amendment to the email privacy law has temporarily stymied the legislation, which passed unanimously through the House in April.

Jordain Carney contributed