Senate To Vote Tuesday On Surveillance Bill; Four Senators Try To Rally Others To Oppose

Following yesterday’s bizarre vote in the House, in which many members who opposed President Donald Trump and warn about his abuses of office voted to give him much greater surveillance capabilities, the issue quickly moved to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a procedural move to ensure no amendments are added, and the bill the Senate will vote on will be basically the awful bill in the House.

On top of that he put out a misleading statement, playing up the usual fear mongering about Section 702 and even name-checking 9/11.

“Republicans and Democrats agree that we must not deprive the men and women who protect our country of this important tool. Five years ago, a reauthorization of Section 702 passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. Al Qaeda, ISIL and associated terror groups remain intent on striking our people, and those serving us overseas. I look forward to renewing the bipartisan consensus on this issue now that the time has come to approve a new extension.”

“With each day that passes since this nation was attacked on September 11th, 2001 it seems that the concern over terrorism has waned. That is in part due to the success of our defense and intelligence community in preventing another attack. And they rely upon section 702 to accomplish that mission. But as we know, Al Qaeda, ISIL and associated terror groups remain intent on striking our people, and those serving us overseas.”

Of course, this ignores that Section 702 didn’t even show up until almost a decade after 9/11 — so really wasn’t responsible for most of the intelligence work that McConnell is giving it credit for. And, on top of that, it ignores the widespread abuse of Section 702 programs that we now know about. It also ignores that in some ways this new bill expands the power to conduct surveillance on Americans without a warrant and to use that surveillance for law enforcement, rather than intelligence purposes.

An intellectually honest debate about this would address these issues. But McConnell does not appear interested in an intellectually honest debate, preferring to scream “9/11!” and demand Senators vote to approve the plan. There is a group of four Senators pushing back against this: Senators Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, Mike Lee and Pat Leahy have sent a powerful letter to their colleagues, detailing the many problems with the bill.

This bill allows an end-run on the Constitution by permitting information collected without a warrant to be used against Americans in domestic criminal investigations. It endorses the possibility that the government will resume “about” collections on Americans, a practice that the government was actually forced to abandon last year due to significant non-compliance with privacy protections ordered by the FISA Court. And it does nothing to protect innocent Americans from expanding warrantless surveillance.

  • Continuing the “backdoor” loophole: The bill does nothing for the thousands of Americans whose private communications are searched without a warrant every year, including those who are not even the subject of an investigation. Nor would it prevent unlimited searches for Americans’ information, even for non-national security purposes. The so-called “warrant requirement” reform in the bill applies only to criminal suspects, and then only to the government’s access to their information at the final stage of an investigation, a situation that, according to the most recent annual data from the Director of National Intelligence, has occurred once. This means that the bill actually treats those suspected of a crime better than innocent Americans.
  • Restarting “About” collection: The bill, for the first time, would statutorily recognize the possibility of the government restarting “about” collection, essentially by default, which would necessarily include warrantless collection of communications to and from Americans for whom there is no suspicion at all. The government was forced to abandon this problematic form of collection last year due to extensive compliance problems, and should not be allowed to resume it without specific Congressional approval.
  • Unreviewable end use: The bill grants new, unchecked powers to the Attorney General to allow data collected without a warrant to be used in domestic criminal prosecutions of Americans. The Attorney General merely has to determine that a criminal proceeding “affects, involves, or is related to the national security of the United States” or involves a “transnational crime.” Alarmingly, the bill explicitly prohibits any challenge to the Attorney General’s decision.

To be clear, FISA’s purpose is to collect foreign intelligence, but without additional meaningful constraints, Congress is allowing the government to use information collected without a warrant against Americans in domestic court proceedings. We have introduced two separate bills which preserve the government’s ability to pursue terrorists abroad and protect the country from foreign threats while also making the necessary reforms to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans here at home.

The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, however, further expands the risks of unconstitutional spying on innocent Americans, and we encourage you to join us in opposition to this bill. We believe that a clean, short-term extension would be markedly preferable to this legislation. Section 702 was last extended for the length of the Continuing Resolution; if Leadership does not allow any amendments to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act and it does not pass this coming week, then Section 702 authorities can be extended again on the next Continuing Resolution to allow the Senate to fully debate how to appropriately reform this powerful surveillance tool.

It would be nice if other Senators actually paid attention and listened to these four… but the fact that it is just these four (and they tend to be the most reliable four Senators talking about protecting the 4th Amendment) suggests that McConnell knows that he has enough votes to pass the bill and allow the NSA and domestic law enforcement to increase their warrantless surveillance of Americans. This also means that it might be a good time to call your own two Senators and make sure they’re voting against this. Fight for the Future is crowdfunding to buy billboards advertising against some Senators who vote for the bill, but the more these Senators hear from constituents saying that this bill obliterates our 4th Amendment rights, the better.

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