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Senate sends surveillance reauthorization bill to Biden’s desk

President expected to sign renewal of Section 702 of FISA

FBI Director Christopher Wray repeatedly urged Congress to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act without a warrant requirement.
FBI Director Christopher Wray repeatedly urged Congress to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act without a warrant requirement. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate passed a bill Saturday to reauthorize a powerful spy authority for two years, closing the page on a bitter and drawn-out congressional debate that pitted privacy hawks against intelligence-focused lawmakers and the Biden administration.

The chamber voted 60-34 on a House-passed measure that would renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the U.S. government to collect digital communications of foreigners located outside the country.

The measure includes changes aimed at making sure the government could not misuse the powerful surveillance authority, which also sweeps up the communications of Americans and allows the FBI to search through data without a warrant, using information such as an email address.

The Senate rejected six amendments that sought to change the House-passed version on privacy protections, which advocates said were needed after a series of abuses by the FBI.

Among them, the chamber voted 42-50 to reject an amendment from Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., that would require the government to get a warrant to access Americans’ communications, and voted 34-58 to reject an amendment from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to remove language that defined an electronic communication service provider.

The bill now heads to the White House, which has previously said it “strongly supports” this version of the reauthorization.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, in a statement said President Joe Biden “will swiftly sign the bill into law, ensuring that our security professionals can continue to rely on Section 702 to detect grave national security threats and use that understanding to protect the United States.”

The program technically expired Friday. But the Justice Department has told congressional leaders that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had taken action that would allow the program to continue to operate for up to a year even if it were not reauthorized by April 19.

Supporters say the measure would bring more oversight to the program. Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said it would establish new procedures to curtail the FBI, heighten accountability at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and “institute unprecedented transparency across the FISA process.”

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote that he is ready to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to keep strengthening protections for American citizens.

“Allowing FISA to expire would have been dangerous,” Schumer said. “It’s an important part of our national security toolkit and helps law enforcement stop terrorist attacks, drug trafficking, and violent extremism.”

The final vote on the bill split the chamber along policy rather than political lines, with the Senate leaders of both parties supporting the measure. The votes against it came from 17 Democrats, 16 Republicans and 1 independent.

Durbin, in a statement after the vote, said the Section 702 program “sadly” has enabled warrantless access to “vast databases” of Americans’ private communications, and a judge should approve a government attempt to view them.

“I recognize the importance of Section 702, but I could not rubberstamp the House’s flawed bill,” Durbin said. “And without critical changes to improve this bill, I could not support it.”

The bill also would afford special treatment to members of Congress, adding a requirement that lawmakers be notified when they are the subject of an FBI search under the program.

The vote in the Senate caps off a bruising reauthorization push that lasted more than a year.

The debate in the House eventually broke into an embittered battle between privacy hawks and intelligence-focused lawmakers over how far lawmakers should go in providing privacy protections to American information collected under the program.

Amid the monthslong debate, House GOP leadership failed multiple times to bring a reauthorization bill to the floor.

The Biden administration also pushed hard for a renewal of the authority, with intelligence community officials emphasizing it as a tool to fight terrorism and touting the program as a cornerstone of national security.

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