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Senators demand answers on expired surveillance programs

Senators demand answers on expired surveillance programs
© Bonnie Cash

Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Durbin seeks to become top-ranking Democrat on Judiciary panel Feinstein to step down as top Democrat on Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus MORE (R-Ut.) on Thursday pressed the Trump administration on whether and how mass surveillance programs authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act have been halted since the act's expiration.

The letter to Attorney General William BarrBill BarrNew DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Five federal inmates scheduled for execution before Inauguration Day MORE and Director of National Intelligence John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeProfiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers Biden considering King for director of national intelligence: report Haspel not in attendance at latest Trump intelligence briefing: reports MORE raises concerns that the administration may be be continuing to conduct surveillance operations by relying on Executive Order 12333.

The order, issued on 1981, has been used before to conduct operations without statutory authorization or congressional oversight.

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“Congress and the American people have a right to know if this or any other administration is spying on people in the United States outside of express congressional approval, with no or diminished guardrails,” Sens. Leahy and Lee wrote.

“The rights of all Americans depend on their government exercising its power responsibly, adhering to the rule of law, and upholding its duty to act transparently. Any surveillance conducted in the absence of statutory authorities and congressional oversight would be extraordinarily concerning and illegal.”

Reauthorization of the key FISA provisions under the USA Freedom Act has stalled.

After Lee and Leahy successfully added an amendment increasing the role of outside legal experts in FISA court hearings to the House bill in May, Democratic leadership in the lower chamber was unable to get enough votes together and sent the bill to committee.

The senators letter Tuesday asks for documentation showing the administration issued guidance to ensure surveillance activities under USA Freedom were halted on March 15.

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It also asks for the administrations interpretation of EO 12333 and whether any agencies or investigations are currently relying on it.

The lawmakers pressed the administration to also disclose whether it is relying on legal theories which claim the government may presumptively treat records as foreign for purposes of collection.

According to Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel at the progressive group Demand Progress, these questions are "critically important."

"The last time Bill Barr was Attorney General, he authorized a mass surveillance program under the DEA that operated in secret for over 20 years, and we can't even begin to measure its impacts on Americans' rights," he said in a statement.

"In March, the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence claimed on the Senate floor that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE can conduct mass surveillance of Americans 'without Congress's permission, with no guardrails.' This is alarming, dangerous, and urgent."