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Government used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019

The federal government used the Patriot Act to collect website visit logs in 2019, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed in letters made public Thursday, putting a renewed focus on surveillance authorities that lapsed earlier this year.

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeTrump alumni launch America First Policy Institute Sunday shows preview: Democrats eye two-part infrastructure push; Michigan coronavirus cases surge Former Trump officials eye bids for political office MORE, in a Nov. 6 letter in response to Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Job openings jump to record high of 8.1 million | Wyden opposes gas tax hike | Airlines feel fuel crunch Green future needs to be built with union jobs and prevailing wage Wyden: Funding infrastructure with gas tax hike a 'big mistake' MORE (D-Ore.), wrote that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to covertly obtain court orders to collect any business records relevant to a national security, was not used to get internet search terms.

He later clarified that position in a Nov. 25 follow-up letter after being contacted by the Justice Department to note that the authority had been used once to collect logs showing which computers “in a specified foreign country” had visited “a single, identified U.S. web page” during 2019.

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“The DNI’s amended letter raises all kinds of new questions, including whether, in this particular case, the government has taken steps to avoid collecting Americans’ web browsing information,” Wyden said in a statement to The Hill on Thursday. 

“More generally, the DNI has provided no guarantee that the government wouldn’t use the Patriot Act to intentionally collect Americans’ web browsing information in the future, which is why Congress must pass the warrant requirement that has already received support from a bipartisan majority in the Senate.”

A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on whether the authority had been used to gather similar information before 2019, but did suggest that collecting web browsing data was consistent with the agency's interpretation of the law.

"Section 215 has been an important tool used by the government to obtain this type of non-content information to combat cyber and other national security threats," they said, referring to data about communications excluding the communications themselves.

"This type of non-content information can be obtained in a criminal investigation through the use of a grand jury subpoena and we see no reason to prohibit the acquisition of the same type of information under Section 215 when investigating a threat to national security.”

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While Ratcliffe noted that the government did not collect keywords for searches, the data collected is considered sensitive by many civil rights groups.

"Our web-browsing records are windows into some of the most sensitive information about our lives — revealing everything from our political views to potential medical conditions,” Patrick ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeySasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote Philly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote MORE, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement. “The FBI should not be collecting this information without a warrant.”

Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel at the progressive group Demand Progress, said that the same logic could be used to justify mass surveillance.

“If this is legal in their mind then a dragnet on a website is legal,” he told The Hill.

The New York Times first reported on the Ratcliffe letters.

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The revelation that Section 215 was used to collect online visitor logs comes as Congress struggles over how to reauthorize the provision and two other surveillance-related investigative tools whose legal authority lapsed earlier this year.

Section 215 has been a particular sticking point in negotiations.

Wyden and Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesGOP senator urges Biden to withdraw support for COVID vaccine patent waiver Overnight Energy: 5 takeaways from the Colonial Pipeline attack | Colonial aims to 'substantially' restore pipeline operations by end of week | Three questions about Biden's conservation goals House conservatives take aim at Schumer-led bipartisan China bill MORE (R-Mont.), who offered an amendment that would bar law enforcement from accessing Americans' web browsing history using Section 215, fell one vote short of adoption in the Senate earlier this year.

In the House, a narrower version of the amendment was pulled by Democratic leadership before they ultimately kicked the surveillance reauthorization debate to a conference committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Republican governor of Arkansas says 'Trump is dividing our party' MORE (R-Ky.) did not appoint any members to the conference panel, meaning the Section 215 authority has since lapsed.

While the three authorities remain inactive, lawmakers and privacy groups have raised concerns that the Trump administration may be using an earlier executive order to illegally surveil Americans.

Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981, has been used before to conduct operations without statutory authorization or congressional oversight.

Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap On The Money: Democratic scramble complicates Biden's human infrastructure plan | Progressives push on student debt relief No designated survivor chosen for Biden's joint address to Congress MORE (D-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP governor says Republican Party has to allow for differences Republicans urge probe into Amazon government cloud-computing bid: report Allowing a racist slur against Tim Scott to trend confirms social media's activist bias MORE (R-Utah) and Reps. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalNurses union lobbies Congress on health care bills during National Nurses Week White House raises refugee cap to 62,500 The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' MORE (D-Wash.) and Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP Boehner finally calls it as he sees it The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Back to the future on immigration, Afghanistan, Iran MORE (R-Ohio) sent letters to Attorney General William BarrBill BarrCNN legal analyst joins DOJ's national security division Barr threatened to resign over Trump attempts to fire Wray: report DOJ faces big decision on home confinement MORE and Ratcliffe earlier this year over potential misuse of 12333 authority. The lawmakers said they never received a response.