U.S. surveillance program to expire after renewal stalls in Senate


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. government surveillance tools fiercely opposed by privacy advocates and defended by intelligence agencies will expire after legislation renewing them stalled in the Senate on Thursday, although passage is expected next week.

In a rare bipartisan vote, the Democratic-led House of Representatives backed the “USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020” on Wednesday. But the measure, which renews and updates domestic surveillance rules under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), must pass the Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump to become law.

Privacy advocates, including liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans, are fiercely critical of FISA. And Trump, who is convinced that surveillance tools covered by the legislation were improperly used against his 2016 campaign, had demanded tighter controls on authorities allowed under the law.

Republican Senator Mike Lee spoke against FISA in the Senate on Thursday, as an effort to quickly pass the House bill fell short.

“The American people deserve more, they deserve better, and we must provide it,” Lee said, urging Senate leaders to at least allow time to consider amendments to the legislation.

Lee had suggested a 45-day extension of the existing law, but that was blocked by fellow Republican Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who wants the House-passed authorization bill to become law.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was confident the Senate would pass the bill. “It’s not a question of if this passes but when,” he said.

McConnell had asked senators to pass the House legislation before leaving Washington for a recess next week. However, McConnell postponed the recess so lawmakers can deal with the coronavirus pandemic, clearing the way for FISA to be renewed after lapsing only briefly.

“I hope we don’t have an attack this weekend,” Burr told reporters after the debate in the Senate with Lee.

Trump’s opposition to FISA seemed to have eased after Attorney General William Barr wrote the bill renewing it with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including reforms that addressed Republican concerns about surveillance of Trump’s campaign.

Barr is considered a particularly close ally of Trump’s.

But Trump cast some doubt on the FISA bill’s future on Thursday.

“Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” Trump said on Twitter.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown