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20 Apr, 2024 18:27

US lawmakers approve more government spying

The Senate has passed a controversial bill that enables the FBI to surveil Americans without warrants
US lawmakers approve more government spying

The US Senate has expanded a law that enables the government to conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans under the guise of protecting them from foreign threats.

The bill authorizing a two-year extension of the so-called Section 702 program of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was approved by a 60-34 vote in the early morning hours of Saturday. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the legislation, renewing the spying tool after it expired at midnight on Saturday.

Section 702 is ostensibly about surveilling the communications of foreigners for intelligence purposes, including detection of possible terrorist plots against the US. Many of the phone calls and messages that are tapped by Washington’s spying apparatus occur between foreigners and US citizens.

The FBI has accessed the 702 database of intercepted communications to investigate targeted Americans, such as Black Lives Matters activists, journalists, members of Congress, political donors, and possible participants in the January 2021 US Capitol riot. Such searches normally require investigators to secure a warrant, meaning a court has found probable cause to suspect that the targeted person has committed a crime.

Critics of the program had demanded that reforms be made before renewing Section 702 to protect US citizens from unconstitutional spying. A 2023 investigation by the US FISA court found that the FBI had illegally used its surveillance powers against American citizens more than 278,000 times in a 12-month period. Congress voted down an amendment that would have required warrants for probes of communications involving Americans.

“Section 702 has been abused under presidents from both political parties, and it has been used to unlawfully surveil the communications of Americans across the political spectrum,” said Kia Hamadanchy, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “By expanding the government’s surveillance powers without adding a warrant requirement that would protect Americans, the House has voted to allow the intelligence agencies to violate the civil rights and liberties of Americans for years to come.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) hailed the fact that the FISA program was reauthorized “in the nick of time,” just as it was expiring. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said that failure to renew the spying powers could cause US officials to “miss a key piece of intelligence,” such as a threat to American troops stationed overseas or a potential terrorist attack.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) lamented the fact that lawmakers declined to pass his amendments to the FISA bill, which would have enabled the government to continue spying on foreigners while protecting the civil liberties of Americans. His proposal was voted down by an 82-11 margin.

“We could have ensured both constitutional rights and national security were protected,” Paul said. “Yet again, the Senate was asked to consider the question: ‘Can liberty be exchanged for security?’ And sadly, the majority of senators said, ‘Yes, it can.’”