Senate passes amended FISA surveillance overhaul

Measure now returns to the House after adoption of Lee-Leahy amendment

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, left, here with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham at a hearing Tuesday, says his amendment “will help bring some much-needed oversight and accountability to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Utah Sen. Mike Lee, left, here with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham at a hearing Tuesday, says his amendment “will help bring some much-needed oversight and accountability to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:06pm

The Senate on Thursday easily passed an amended bill to revive and increase oversight of surveillance powers.

Senators voted, 80-16, to pass the measure before finishing up work on Capitol Hill for the week. Under a previous agreement, 60 votes were required.

The measure will now return to the House, since senators voted Wednesday to adopt a bipartisan amendment expanding the number of cases before the secretive intelligence court in which an outside legal counsel would be appointed.

The amendment from Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont was adopted with the overwhelming support of 77 senators despite warnings from leaders that it could prolong the lapse in authorization of important intelligence powers.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. But men are not angels, so our government will always need oversight and accountability to make sure it doesn’t abuse its power. The Lee-Leahy Amendment just passed by the Senate will help bring some much-needed oversight and accountability to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” Lee said in a statement ahead of Thursday’s vote. “More work still needs to be done, but this is good reform in the right direction, and I look forward to final passage of this FISA reform legislation.”

Earlier in the day, senators easily turned back an amendment offered by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul that sought to block using warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court against U.S. persons. Paul argued that the surveillance powers under FISA should only be used against foreigners. His amendment was rejected, 11-85.

“The deficiency of the FISA court, and why it’s not constitutional, is you don’t get a lawyer,” Paul said on the Senate floor, discussing the FISA warrants issued against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. “You actually don’t even get told that you’ve been accused of a crime. The only reason we know that President [Donald] Trump’s campaign got caught up in this is he won. … If this had been an ordinary American caught up in this, you would never be told.”

Reviving authorizations

The FISA measure passed Thursday would revive lapsed authorizations for three tools in the foreign intelligence toolbox that expired in March, before the coronavirus pandemic came to dominate the congressional agenda.

The bill would revive the authorization for new Section 215 orders that allow for the collection of business and other records of individuals through the FISA court and a roving wiretap provision that permits the government to get orders targeting people who frequently change phone lines or use so-called burner devices to avoid traditional wiretaps on individual lines.

It would also reauthorize the “Lone Wolf” provision, which is a power designed to target suspected individual terrorists.

Sen. John Cornyn, a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, argued in a floor speech Wednesday that the authorizations should be restored, with additional oversight protections, despite concerns about past misuse of the broader intelligence law.

“By and large, these are tools that are used by law enforcement on a daily basis for domestic critical cases. Yet we are going to deny those tools to our counterintelligence officials? It makes no sense whatsoever,” the Texas Republican said. “Our counterintelligence and counterterrorism experts rely on those authorities to keep us safe.”

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