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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 TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus 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 WydenFCC to move forward with considering executive order targeting tech's liability shield Top Democrats call for watchdog to review Trump Medicare drug cards On The Money: Trump says talks on COVID-19 aid are now 'working out' | Pelosi shoots down piecemeal approach | Democrats raise questions about Trump tax audits 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 DainesClimate change — Trump's golden opportunity Steve Bullock raises .8 million in third quarter for Montana Senate bid Overnight Defense: National Guard says no federal requests for election security help | Dems accuse VA head of misusing resources | Army official links COVID-19 to troop suicides MORE (R-Mont.) in the upper chamber, with a companion introduced by longtime privacy hawk Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenWhy prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas Fears grow of voter suppression in Texas Business groups start gaming out a Biden administration MORE (D-Calif.) and progressive leader Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOcasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Poll shows Biden leading Trump, tight House race in key Nebraska district 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."