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Senate passes bill renewing key FISA surveillance power moments after it expires

WASHINGTON — The Senate has voted to reauthorize a powerful surveillance tool that the U.S. government describes as essential to the fight against terrorism, after defeating efforts by civil liberties advocates on the left and right to rein it in.

The 60-34 vote sends the bill to President Joe Biden, who has championed it. The legislation extends Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, by two years.

The final vote came after the Senate rejected six amendments from progressive and conservative senators who said spying powers were too broad and required protections for Americans’ civil liberties and privacy. The Biden administration and FISA supporters had warned that even a brief deviation could have a detrimental impact on the intelligence-gathering process.

Senators narrowly missed the midnight deadline to reauthorize the status of FISA Section 702, but voted to reauthorize it minutes later. If amendments had been adopted, the bill would have been sent back to the House, which could lead to a long period of non-enforcement of the law.

“Just on time, bipartisanship has prevailed here in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said.

“It wasn’t easy, people had very different views, but we all know one thing: letting FISA expire would have been dangerous. Ending acts of terrorism, drug trafficking and violent extremism is an important part of our national security,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Thank you to all of my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their hard work to make this happen.”

The House last week passed a two-year renewal of FISA after rejecting, by the narrowest of margins, an amendment requiring a warrant to search Americans’ communications for data collected during surveillance of foreigners. Senators delayed the vote for days by pushing for amendments to make changes to the bill.

Passage of the bill follows a pitched battle between the U.S. intelligence community and an unusual coalition of progressive and conservative civil liberties advocates, who have argued that the powers are too broad and intrude on Americans’ privacy.

“It’s important that people understand how radical this bill is,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a ranking member of the Intelligence Committee and a staunch privacy advocate. “Something was inserted at the last minute that would require someone like a cable company to spy for the government. They would force the person to do it and there would be no appeal.

In a rare break with Schumer and Biden, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the president pro tempore, opposed the bill, saying, “I have strong concerns that this expansion of the powers of Section 702 of FISA does not allow an increase in abuse and misuse. of the law – undermining the rights of Americans here at home.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., pushed back against that and other criticism of a House amendment added to the FISA reauthorization bill, arguing that it “is narrowly focused on a significant intelligence gap,” but some members like Wyden are concerned. we could abuse it.

“Contrary to what some have said, this expressly excludes cafes, bars, restaurants, residences, hotels, libraries, recreational facilities and a litany of similar establishments,” Warner told the Senate on Wednesday. “Nor would it absolutely allow, as some critics have argued, the U.S. government to coerce, for example, a janitor working in an office building in Northern Virginia to spy for the intelligence community. »

Warner said allowing FISA to expire would have put the United States in “unchartered territory” because companies that work with the government to provide intelligence could have stopped doing so without a new authorization.

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said that “60 percent of the president’s daily brief is 702-derived material, so that is absolutely critical.”

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