Senate set to debate privacy amendments to surveillance bill on Thursday

Senators reached an agreement late last week to begin debate on four amendments to the bill when the Senate reconvenes on Thursday morning, according to a Senate Democratic aide.

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The advocacy groups charge that the surveillance law could be used to sweep up American citizens' phone and email communications without a warrant, and say it's unclear whether this has already happened under the law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that public should hear how the amendments could boost the privacy protections in the FAA, which is set to expire on Dec. 31.

The measure gives U.S. officials the authority to conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists abroad without a court order. 

"We're very happy that they're going to have several hours dedicated to debate, and have a chance to talk about some of these amendments," said Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel in the ACLU's Washington office. "It looks like there's a possibility they might try to get [the bill] through without any, so this is an important first step."

Still, Richardson noted that it will be a challenge to get the amendments adopted into the final bill.

"I think we're realistic that it's an uphill battle, but dozens of members have voted against this [bill] or in support of amendments in the past," she said.

The Senate will debate a substitute amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote this summer. It includes oversight-focused measures and a sunset provision that aligns the FAA with the expiration of certain measures in the Patriot Act, "thereby enabling Congress to evaluate all of the expiring surveillance provisions of FISA together, instead of dealing with them in piecemeal fashion," Leahy said in a July statement.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an outspoken critic of the surveillance bill, will offer an amendment that would require the Director of National Intelligence to report to Congress on whether any domestic email or phone communications were collected by a government entity under the FAA, among other privacy implications of the law. The Senate will also debate an amendment from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that would require the government to declassify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's opinions on surveillance requests. 

Richardson called these amendments "moderate" and said they don't limit the collection of foreign intelligence.

"They're really just about transparency and accountability," she said.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is offering an measure on Fourth Amendment searches and seizures.

GOP members have signaled that they want to pass the same version of the FAA as the House, which reauthorized the 2008 law without adding any amendments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to bring up the measure with a handful of amendments last week, but Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) objected and asked why the Senate couldn't vote on the same five-year extension that the House passed.

Chambliss noted that the Obama administration is in favor of the reauthorization.


This post was updated at 6:42 p.m.