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WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, the Senate voted on two amendments as it moved closer to renewing the authority for national-security agencies to spy on the communications of people in the United States.

The first amendment to the reauthorization legislation, offered by Sens. Steve Daines (R–Montana) and Ron Wyden (D–Oregon), fell just a single vote short of the 60 votes needed for passage, with a final count of 59–37. Had the amendment passed, it would have restricted law-enforcement searches on individual internet browsers and search histories.  

Ten Democrats, including senior Intelligence and Judiciary Committee member Dianne Feinstein (D–California), broke ranks with their party to oppose these internet-user protections. Two, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I–Vermont) and Patty Murray (D–Washington), apparently didn’t come to the floor to cast what would have been deciding votes.

A second amendment offered by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D–Vermont) and Mike Lee (R–Utah) was adopted overwhelmingly by a 77–19 vote. It will expand the role of amici curiae to protect against wrongful FISA targeting of religious groups, political organizations and the press. This is a strong improvement on the underlying reauthorization bill.  

This spying authority, established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the USA Patriot Act, was set to sunset late last year. It’s been temporarily extended twice, instead of receiving full reauthorization, due to growing bipartisan opposition to the controversial authorities.  

While the adoption of the Leahy–Lee amendment significantly improves the bill, the original legislation reauthorizing this spying authority has been opposed by several civil-liberties, privacy and racial-justice advocacy organizations, including Free Press Action. If it passes in a final vote expected to occur tomorrow, it will return to the House, where it’s expected to pass, before heading to President Donald Trump's desk.

Free Press Action Government Relations Director Sandra Fulton made the following statement:

“Leadership of both parties and in both chambers of Congress attempted to force these sweeping surveillance powers through without any amendments or public debate. Thankfully, a bipartisan group of senators derailed the bill on the Senate floor in March, and secured a deal to debate privacy-strengthening amendments.

“While it was hard to lose by one vote on an amendment that would have secured our internet-browsing and search histories with a warrant, the adoption of an amendment expanding the role of amici curiae is a huge win for civil-liberties champions. These protections are particularly critical given the Trump administration’s history of abusing marginalized communities and others Trump regards as enemies.

“Majority Leader McConnell’s shameful push to pass the bill without any such amendments was intended to give the Trump administration and intelligence agencies the power to warrantlessly acquire billions of data points on every single person in the United States. And the massive bipartisan support for efforts to protect Americans’ privacy shows just how out of touch the Senate leader is even within his own party.

“This reauthorization of unchecked spying faces bipartisan opposition from a growing number of civil-liberties champions. Democrats are joining Republicans to say that the original legislation doesn’t do enough to protect everyone’s privacy rights.

“McConnell is fearful of the growing opposition within his own ranks. That’s why he’s pushing so aggressively to pass this bill while so much of the nation is focused on the coronavirus crisis. Yet it still should be unthinkable to extend these spying powers to the same agencies that have so often sidestepped safeguards and ignored Americans’ fundamental privacy rights.
The adoption of one strong amendment is a step in the right direction, and the House should do more to protect the rights of everyone before granting intelligence agencies any such authority.

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