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 TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far 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 WydenRussian interference reports rock Capitol Hill McSally unveils bill to lower drug prices amid tough campaign Graham: Trump has 'all the legal authority in the world' to pardon Stone 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 DainesAs many as eight GOP senators expected to vote to curb Trump's power to attack Iran Senate set for closing arguments on impeachment Schiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line MORE (R-Mont.) in the upper chamber, with a companion introduced by longtime privacy hawk Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenTop Democrats demand answers on DHS plans to deploy elite agents to sanctuary cities Gillibrand proposes creating new digital privacy agency GOP senator proposes overhauling federal agency to confront Big Tech MORE (D-Calif.) and progressive leader Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila Jayapal22 studies agree: 'Medicare for All' saves money Band Portugal. The Man to join Sanders at campaign event in Tacoma Bloomberg builds momentum on Capitol Hill with new endorsements 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."