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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 RatcliffeBiden intelligence chief pledges to keep politics out of job House panels open review of Capitol riot Edward Snowden, the media, and the Espionage Act MORE, in a Nov. 6 letter in response to Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Democrats call on Biden to immediately invoke Defense Production Act Yellen champions big spending at confirmation hearing Biden pick for Intel chief vows to release report on Khashoggi killing 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 ToomeyGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Appeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel 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 DainesYellen champions big spending at confirmation hearing McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time McConnell says he's undecided on whether to vote to convict Trump 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 McConnellTrump has talked to associates about forming new political party: report McConnell, Schumer fail to cut power-sharing deal amid filibuster snag McConnell keeps GOP guessing on Trump impeachment 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 LeahyPompeo's flurry of foreign policy moves hampers Biden start Senior Democrat says Hawley, Cruz should step down from Judiciary Congress unveils .3 trillion government spending and virus relief package MORE (D-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeRepublicans wrestle over removing Trump Lawmakers, leaders offer condolences following the death of Capitol Police officer GOP senators urging Trump officials to not resign after Capitol chaos MORE (R-Utah) and Reps. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history Rep. Adriano Espaillat tests positive for COVID-19 Overnight Health Care: Trump admin makes changes to speed vaccinations | CDC to order negative tests for international travelers | More lawmakers test positive after Capitol siege MORE (D-Wash.) and Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Top GOP lawmakers call for Swalwell to be removed from Intelligence Committee House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit MORE (R-Ohio) sent letters to Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTwo-thirds say the election was fair: poll The Hill's Morning Report - An inauguration like no other Barr told Trump that theories about stolen election were 'bulls---': report MORE and Ratcliffe earlier this year over potential misuse of 12333 authority. The lawmakers said they never received a response.