Lawmakers introduce bill to reform controversial surveillance authorities

Lawmakers introduce bill to reform controversial surveillance authorities
© Greg Nash

A group of privacy-focused lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation to reform a set of controversial surveillance authorities set to expire in March, setting up ambitious goalposts in the upcoming battle over whether Congress should pare down the government's ability to spy on people in the U.S. 

The bill, from a bipartisan and bicameral coalition, would narrow down the kinds of information the government is allowed to collect without a warrant and officially shut down its ability to collect phone records on millions of Americans.

And it would reform a secretive court that President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE and Republican allies have bitterly criticized in the wake of a critical inspector general report last year. 

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The Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act seeks to capitalize on a wave of renewed bipartisan interest in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court), an instrumental part of the country's intelligence-gathering and national security operations. 

“Liberty and security aren’t mutually exclusive, and they aren’t partisan either,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Senate Dems pump brakes on new stimulus checks | Trump officials sued over tax refunds | Fed to soon open small-business lending program Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Voting rights, public health officials roll out guidelines to protect voters from COVID-19 MORE (D-Ore.), who has long called for surveillance reform, said in a statement. “I’m proud our bipartisan coalition is standing up for Americans’ rights and commonsense reforms to protect our people against unnecessary government surveillance." 

The bill was introduced by Wyden and Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA Pelosi pulls vote on FISA bill after Trump veto threat MORE (R-Mont.) in the upper chamber, with a companion introduced by longtime privacy hawk Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers House punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate MORE (D-Calif.) and progressive leader Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support House punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard MORE (D-Wash.). 

It sets the stage for a bipartisan coalition between Trump allies, who have criticized the FISA court as part of a deeply political battle over whether the FBI exhibited bias against Trump, and progressives who want to reform government surveillance authorities.

The legislation would permanently end the phone records program disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which shuttered last year amid technical difficulties. It would also officially prohibit intelligence agencies from collecting geolocation information without a warrant. 

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Significantly, it would ensure independent attorneys have access to the proceedings of the FISA court. 

The government filed 1,117 warrant applications to the FISA court last year, including 1,081 that requested electronic surveillance.

Congress is facing a mid-March deadline to extend three expiring surveillance authorities. 

"The surveillance capabilities intended to keep us safe from foreign threats have all too often trampled on Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights to due process," Josh Withrow, a senior policy analyst for conservative group FreedomWorks, said in a statement. "The Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act would be an enormous step forward in securing those rights."