FBI Surveillance Measures Appear Likely To Expire With GOP Opposition | WCAI

FBI Surveillance Measures Appear Likely To Expire With GOP Opposition

Mar 12, 2020
Originally published on March 12, 2020 7:40 pm

Updated at 7:40 p.m. ET

Three domestic surveillance tools used by the FBI in counterterrorism investigations look all but certain to lapse--at least temporarily--after the Senate failed to vote to renew them before they expire this weekend.

The authorities, which the intelligence community says are critical to national security, are set to lapse on Sunday without action by Congress. The Senate adjourned on Thursday evening until Monday without resolving the matter, signaling that the surveillance tools will likely expire.

The political impasse over government spying and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been intensifying for months in part because of anger by President Trump and some of his allies over the Russia investigation.

Other members of Congress and Attorney General Bill Barr had hoped that last-minute revisions could have prevented a lapse in the surveillance authorities, which must be occasionally reauthorized by lawmakers.

The House took the first step on Wednesday by passing a bipartisan measure that reauthorizes the provisions but also implements changes, including adding new privacy protections.

To become law it still must be passed by the Senate and signed by the president — but Trump said on Thursday he wasn't happy with the state of play surrounding the legislation and then the Senate adjourned before taking a vote on the matter.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., meanwhile, has said he supports the House measure and wanted to pass it.

Barr, who made an earlier visit to a Senate Republican meeting to try to sell the importance of FISA, says the current legislation has new requirements that "will protect against abuse and misuse in the future while ensuring that this critical tool is available when appropriate to protect the safety of the American people."

Blockage

But the bill faces stiff opposition from several senators, including Utah's Mike Lee and Kentucky's Rand Paul, two Republicans with longstanding concerns about government surveillance.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Lee said the House bill "doesn't cut the mustard — it doesn't do the job."

He said that he and his fellow senators who have concerns about the bill are seeking "a few modest reforms to make sure that it's a little bit harder to abuse this law."

Lee proposed a 45-day extension to allow senators to examine the House bill, debate it and offer amendments. The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, blocked that effort.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Republican leadership and supporter of the bill, says Lee's roadblock could delay a vote until after Sunday's deadline, which would allow the surveillance authorities to temporarily lapse.

If that happens, the Senate would likely vote on the measure early next week.

Skeptic-in-chief

Even if the Senate were to pass the compromise bill, it's unclear whether Trump would sign it into law.

Trump has repeatedly voiced deep skepticism about government surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

"Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted 'coup' of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!" Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

Cornyn was asked about the president's statement and said he hoped the president's advisers would get through to him: "I hope he follows the advice of his own attorney general and signs it," Cornyn said.

The three authorities up for renewal are called the business records provision, the roving wiretap provision and the lone wolf provision. Law enforcement officials say they're an important part of the toolkit they need to monitor or intercept would-be terrorists.

The House bill, which would reauthorize them until Dec. 2023, was hammered out in compromise among Democratic and Republican leadership. It passed by a 2-1 margin despite opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who say it didn't go far enough to protect civil liberties.

The compromise legislation includes several changes, including the addition of new privacy protections and the scrapping of a controversial phone metadata program.

Some of the changes aim to address problems identified by the Justice Department inspector general in his report about FBI surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in the early days of the Russia investigation.

The bill would, for example, impose penalties on officials who lie to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that oversees domestic national security surveillance and approved the FBI's wiretapping of Page.

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales contributed to this report.

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