US senators rail against effort to sneak through creepy mass spying bill

We must have public debate on warrantless snooping, demands bipartisan gang

Press conference ... Senators speak out today

A bipartisan group of US senators have lambasted an effort to force permanent authorization of a controversial warrantless American spying program through Congress by attaching it to an end-of-year spending bill, calling the effort "an end-run around the Constitution."

At a press conference Tuesday morning, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Steve Daines (R-MT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) insisted that there needed to be a public debate on section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and suggested they would vote against any spending bill that included its long-term reauthorization.

"The Senate has gone a whole year without a single minute of debate on this," noted Wyden. "Congress is being forced to legislate in the dark."

Wyden also noted that the intelligence agencies have simply refused to answer several basic questions about the blanket surveillance program: including how many Americans have been swept up in a program that is only supposed to target foreigners; and what categories of people are being targeted by the warrantless mass spying tool.

Rand Paul called the push to reauthorize the system "a huge mistake," and insisted there needed to be "more oversight not less" of its operation.

Paul noted that "the information on foreigners is gathered in a less-than-Constitutional manner – and most of us are okay with that – but when it comes to Americans, collection should not be through a less-than-Constitutional standard and should not be used for domestic crime."

For his part, Leahy noted that this issue was "too important to be jammed through on an end-of-year continuing resolution." He flagged three main issues with the program, and argued "we have to have a real debate" about where "people's privacy is being invaded."

Unacceptable

Daines argued that without a proper review and debate "our civil liberties are being needlessly abandoned," and Lee said that it was "absolutely unacceptable" that such significant government powers that go to the very heart of Americans privacy and security would be reauthorized without a public debate.

woman laughs in a freaked-out way. Pic by shutterstock

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The section 702 program – which the intelligence agencies have publicly admitted is their "number one priority" – will expire at the end of the year unless it is explicitly reauthorized by Congress. The NSA claims to have the authority to keep running it until April.

But due to a heavy legislative agenda, ongoing debate in Congress about what changes need to be made to the program, and a determined effort by the intelligence agencies to stall and delay any discussion of the program – not to mention tedious partisan politics – time has run out.

That has resulted in an effort to attach long-term (eight-year) reauthorization of the program to an end-of-year must-pass spending bill.

The senators argue that is a step too far. Instead, they proposed a compromise solution of extending the program by "a few weeks" in order to maintain its status, and allow for a public debate in Congress in January.

At the heart of the debate is whether or not Uncle Sam's snoops – especially the FBI – should be required to obtain a warrant before searching the vast section 702 database for information on US citizens.

Through a series of highly questionable interpretations of the law, right now the communications of potentially millions of Americans – we don't know how exactly many millions – are gathered and stored in a vast database run by the NSA, and the FBI is then allowed to search that database for US citizens and use that information to investigate domestic crimes.

Unconstitutional

That process almost certainly breaks the Fourth Amendment, making it unconstitutional and hence illegal. But because the intelligence services value the ability to read US citizens' emails and text messages so highly, they have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to get the program reauthorized without a warrant requirement.

That effort has included: repeatedly providing misleading – and sometimes downright false – testimony on the program; stalling for more than a year answering clearly stated questions about it; lobbying lawmakers extremely hard behind the scenes; and publishing occasional public texts that paint a wholly misleading version of the program, focusing on the national security concerns and ignoring the fact that a foreign surveillance law has gradually been turned into a domestic spying mechanism.

It's still not clear why so many lawmakers are willing to turn a blind eye to the US Constitution, especially when the exact same effort was used a decade ago to get congressmen and women to sign off on the program, even while they questioned its constitutionality.

The version most likely of passing into law is called the USA Liberty Act, which has seen versions pass through committees in both the Senate and the House. But there has been no time for public debate on those bills.

Additionally, those draft laws still retain many elements that privacy advocates are unhappy about, including the ability of the intelligence agencies to continue gathering huge amounts of information on US citizens under the pretense that it is gathered "incidentally," and to search the resulting database using US citizen identifiers – such as name, address, phone number, email address – without requiring a warrant by pretending that it is not really a search but a "query" of an existing database. ®

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