Senate to take up FISA reform this week

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed Monday to take up Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reform, blaming House Democrats for allowing key national security provisions to lapse months ago.

“This is urgent because the House refused to take up the Senate’s short-term extension of important counterterrorism and counterintelligence authorities before they left town,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “We must act quickly to clean up their mess and renew these authorities which our government needs to fight terrorists and check the agents of China and Russia.”

Just before the coronavirus pandemic prompted Congress to abruptly leave Capitol Hill in mid-March, senators passed a stopgap 77-day extension for FISA to give members more time to work on negotiations.

The measure passed one day after three key provisions expired, but the House also did not take it up before departing.

Instead, the Senate will consider this week a bill that passed the House a week before the stopgap measure.

“The bipartisan bill we’ll take up was negotiated exhaustively by House Republicans and the attorney general of the United States,” Mr. McConnell said. “Determined advocates for reform after the shameful abuses in 2016 sat down with determined defenders of the good parts of these tools, and they hammered out a strong compromise.”

The House’s bill — which passed on a 278-136 basis — had both bipartisan support and criticism. Civil liberties advocates on both sides of the aisle said the bill was watered down and doesn’t include the significant reforms they say are necessary.

The legislation includes multiple FISA revisions, including enhanced penalties for those who abuse the process for political purposes, increased congressional oversight, transcripts of court proceedings and a historical review of all FISA rulings since 1977.

It also eliminates the metadata-collection program, which let the National Security Agency secretly collect phone logs and internet data from millions of Americans.

“I hope the Senate will be able to dispatch the amendments that we will consider and pass this important legislation on a bipartisan basis to keep the American people safe,” Mr. McConnell said.

Also Monday, a coalition of 30 advocacy groups across the political spectrum called on the Senate to adopt stringent reforms to better protect civil liberties.

Privacy hawks, including the conservative FreedomWorks and liberal American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to U.S. senators asking to adopt reforms proposed by Sens. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Mike Lee, Utah Republican.

The senators have proposed increasing requirements that the FBI and Justice Department turn over all exculpatory evidence to the court, and the appointment of an independent to advocate to argue against obtaining a wiretap in certain cases.

“What we’ve learned about the FISA process over the past few years, even the past few months, should make it very clear that it’s not acceptable to keep reauthorizing these surveillance authorities without — at minimum — strengthening protections against abuse and increasing transparency,” said Jason Pye, FreedomWorks vice president of legislative affairs.

“Protecting the due process rights of Americans shouldn’t be partisan or even controversial, as the coalition gathered here should illustrate,” Mr. Pye continued. “If the Senate cannot pass even modest, common-sense reforms, then the expired surveillance authorities should stay expired.”

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