Political News

Congress Approves Six-Year Extension of Surveillance Law

Posted January 18, 2018 5:08 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted to extend by six years a law that authorizes the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program, essentially ending a cycle of debate over wiretapping and privacy that began with the leaks in 2013 by Edward J. Snowden, a former intelligence contractor.

The vote, 65-34, sends to President Donald Trump a bill to keep through 2023 an activity that traces back to a once-secret program created by the George W. Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Congress first legalized it in 2008 by enacting a law called Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

Under Section 702, the government, without a warrant, may collect from American companies, like AT&T and Google, the emails, texts, phone calls and other private messages of foreigners abroad — even when those targets communicate with Americans.

Congress last extended that law without changes in 2012. But after Snowden’s leaks in 2013, a bipartisan coalition of civil-liberties-minded lawmakers pushed to impose far more sweeping warrant requirements on queries for Americans’ information that was swept in by government surveillance.

With Thursday’s final vote, that effort failed.

Complicating matters, the bill does impose a limited new warrant requirement for FBI agents to read any emails of an American who is the subject of an open criminal investigation. But that requirement is so narrowly written that it would not apply to the overwhelming majority of such searches, including national-security investigations and assessments of criminal tips before an investigation is opened.

The House approved the bill last week after voting down an amendment that would have imposed a far more sweeping warrant requirement. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, then used a procedural maneuver to prevent similar amendments that proposed reform from being put to a vote in the Senate.

The Senate approved McConnell’s move Tuesday, clearing the path for the bill’s final passage Thursday. In the House, 55 Democrats had joined 178 Republicans in rejecting the reform amendment. In the Senate, 19 members of the Democratic caucus joined 41 Republicans in approving McConnell’s move.

“We need our armed forces and intelligence community to protect us, and they need us to give them the tools to do it,” McConnell said Thursday.

But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said passing the bill without amendments was “a dereliction of duty by a Congress that has a responsibility to protect Americans’ freedoms, as well as our country’s security.” He vowed to keep fighting “to protect Americans from unnecessary government spying.”