Surveillance Bill Clears Key Hurdle in Senate Ahead of Friday Expiration - The World News

Surveillance Bill Clears Key Hurdle in Senate Ahead of Friday Expiration

The Senate on Thursday agreed to move ahead with a two-year reauthorization of an expiring warrantless surveillance law, rushing to pass the legislation before a Friday deadline when the statute is set to lapse.

The bill would extend a provision known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that intelligence officials say is critical to collecting data and communications to target terrorists. The House passed it last week but it still must overcome several procedural obstacles in the Senate, where some members are pushing to make major changes, before a final vote.

On Thursday, it cleared its first key hurdle when the Senate voted 67 to 32 to push it forward.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said he was trying to negotiate a deal with Republicans that would allow for votes on proposed changes and passage of the legislation before the Friday deadline.

“Democrats and Republicans are going to have to reach an agreement if we want to get FISA reauthorization done before the deadline,” Mr. Schumer said on Wednesday. “Otherwise, this very important tool for ensuring our national security is going to lapse, and that would be unacceptable.”

The measure — which would allow the government to continue to collect the messages of noncitizens abroad without a warrant, even when those targeted are communicating with Americans — has split both parties. While it enjoys backing from Republicans and Democrats, it is strongly opposed by libertarians on the right and progressives on the left who are deeply skeptical of granting the government broad spying powers without strict oversight and limits.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, said he and Mr. Schumer were united in urging passage, and argued that the bill addressed G.O.P. concerns through revisions that would crack down on abuses by the F.B.I.

“It includes significant reforms that dramatically enhance transparency into how Section 702 is used by the intelligence community,” Mr. McConnell said. “It includes important reforms to prevent misuse of the authority and require accountability for any such misuse, including new civil and criminal penalties.”

The House passed the renewal legislation last week by a vote of 273 to 147, but only after an amendment to add a warrant requirement to conduct certain queries barely failed in a tie vote.

In the Senate vote on Thursday, 13 Democrats and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, joined 18 Republicans in opposition. Most but not all of those voting “no” were from the left or right wing; Senator Jon Tester, a conservative-leaning Democrat from Montana who is facing a tough re-election race in a red state, was one of those voting against allowing the measure to advance.

The Friday deadline is soft: The program can continue operating until April 2025 because the FISA court granted a government request authorizing it for another year. Under the law, surveillance activity can continue so long as there are active court orders allowing it, even if the underlying statute expires.

Even so, the intelligence community has urged Congress to reauthorize the program before it enters that sort of legal limbo, raising the possibility that service providers might balk at continuing to cooperate and leading to gaps in collection until any ensuing court fights over the question can be resolved.

While Section 702 is meant to empower the government to gather the communications of people overseas without a warrant, it can lead to the collection of Americans’ private messages if those individuals are in contact with the targeted people abroad. While there are limits on how Americans’ messages can be searched for and used, the F.B.I. has repeatedly violated those constraints in recent years — including improperly querying for information about Black Lives Matter protesters and people suspected of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

The F.B.I. has since tightened its practices to reduce the risk of queries that violate the standards. The pending bill would codify those changes and add reporting requirements, as well as limit the number of officials with access to the raw repository of information collected.

But skeptics, including both progressive Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans, want to add a requirement that officials must get a warrant before querying the repository for the contents of Americans’ communications.

“I do not support reauthorizing FISA Section 702 in its current form and call on the Senate to take action to stop warrantless searches by the government and law enforcement agencies to protect Montanans’ freedom and privacy,” Mr. Tester said in a statement.

Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, credited the law with contributing to a successful operation against one of the last remaining architects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and thwarting the plans of other terrorists. He urged passage.

“It is indispensable to the work that the men and women of our intelligence community, and many others, do every day to protect our national security,” Mr. Warner said, adding: “Just to demonstrate how important these capabilities are to our national security: 60 percent — 60 percent — of the items that appear in the president’s daily intelligence brief actually are sourced to information obtained pursuant to Section 702.”

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