Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added legal protections

Greg Nash

The Senate on Thursday passed legislation reauthorizing three intelligence programs that lapsed earlier this year amid a GOP stalemate.

Senators voted 80-16 on the bill, which pairs the reauthorization of the USA Freedom Act provisions with some changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court.

The Senate changed the bill, which originally passed the House in March, as part of a two-day floor debate. Senators added more legal protections for some individuals targeted by the court.

The proposal, which was spearheaded by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would increase the role of outside legal experts in FISA court hearings, including allowing them to weigh in on some FBI surveillance requests.

Because the Senate changed the bill, it will now have to be sent back to the House, which is expected to return on Friday. House Democratic leadership has not said if or when they will take up the amended bill. 

It also remains unclear if President Trump would sign the bill should it reach his desk. The president has railed about his campaign being “spied” upon and has sent mixed signals to lawmakers about if he supports the legislation.

Some supporters of the original House bill warned that letting the Senate make changes could open up the door to progressives and libertarian-minded Republicans in the House trying to reopen negotiations on the bill once it returns to the lower chamber.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that while Lee had “some good ideas,” sending the bill back to the House “could shut things down” on reauthorizing the intelligence programs. 

“I want to promise Sen. Lee and everybody else, this will not be the last word on FISA reform,” he said.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, added that it was the preference of leadership to pass the House bill without changes.

“I think the leader’s position is that it’s much simpler to pick up the House passed bill, pass it, send it to the president,” Thune said. 

The House bill would reauthorize two expired programs: One dealing with “lone wolf” suspects who are not tied to any known terrorist organization and another on “roving” wiretaps that allow the federal government to track a suspect across multiple devices. 

The House bill also reauthorizes Section 215, which allows the government to request “tangible things” such as documents relevant to a national security investigation, but makes changes, including ending a controversial phone surveillance program.

And it also makes some changes to the FISA process, including requiring the attorney general to sign off on applications tied to an elected official.

While senators agreed to add the Lee-Leahy bill, they also rejected two other amendments: one from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) preventing FISA warrants from being used against Americans and one from Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) preventing law enforcement from obtaining internet browsing and search history without a warrant. 

The Senate’s vote comes amid growing concerns about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) after Inspector General Michael Horowitz found 17 inaccuracies and omissions in the warrant applications related to Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. 

An interim report on a broader FISA review that looked at 29 applications found issues with each of them.

The House has to pull its initial bill from a scheduled vote in the Judiciary Committee over pushback from progressives and libertarian-minded GOP lawmakers that it did not go far enough to address privacy concerns or legal protections for those targeted by the court.

Fourteen Democrats voted against the bill: Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Ed Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Jon Tester (Mont), Tom Udall (N.M.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.). On the GOP side, Paul and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, voted against the bill.

Paul railed against the bill from the Senate floor ahead of Thursday’s vote.

“The Patriot Act, in the end, is not patriotic. The Patriot Act makes an unholy and unconstitutional exchange of liberty for a false sense of security. And I, for one, will oppose its reauthorization,” he said, referring to the post-9/11 bill that predated the USA Freedom Act.

Tags Brian Schatz Dick Durbin Donald Trump Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren FISA Fisa Court Jeff Merkley John Thune Jon Tester Lindsey Graham Maria Cantwell Martin Heinrich Mazie Hirono Mike Lee Patrick Leahy Patty Murray Rand Paul Richard Burr Ron Wyden Sherrod Brown Steve Daines Tammy Baldwin Tom Udall USA Freedom Act
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