U.S. Senate votes to extend government surveillance tools


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate comfortably approved a 2-1/2-year extension of parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) on Thursday, two months after the divisive provisions allowing government data collection expired.

The Senate backed the reauthorization by 80-16, far more than the 60 votes needed for passage.

The measure must be approved, however, by the House of Representatives before it can be sent to the White House for President Donald Trump to veto or sign into law. On Thursday, the Republican-led Senate amended the measure approved by the Democratic-led House in March to improve legal protections for those subject to surveillance.

It was not immediately clear when the House would vote. House members were due to return to Washington on Friday to vote on a coronavirus relief package.

The authorities that would be renewed until December 2023 cover the FISA court’s approval of warrants for obtaining business records, allow surveillance without establishing that a subject is acting on behalf of an extremist group – the “lone wolf” provision – and allow continued eavesdropping on a subject who has changed cellular telephone providers.

Backers of the three provisions insist they are essential tools for combating extremism and catching foreign spies.

But they face stiff opposition from privacy advocates, including liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans, who say they do too little to protect Americans’ privacy.

As it considered amendments on Wednesday, the Senate blocked by one vote an amendment that would have prevented law enforcement from collecting information on Americans’ internet habits without a warrant.

Republican Senator Rand Paul said in a Senate speech before the vote that the legislation renewing the surveillance authorities constituted “a false exchange of liberty for a false sense of security.”

The White House has not said whether Trump will sign.

Attorney General William Barr wrote the bill with congressional Democrats and Republicans. But the Republican president recently has resurrected in comments on Twitter his anger over the use of FISA by Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney