02:16 - Source: CNN
Hurd slams FISA court abuses: 'Absolutely outrageous'
CNN  — 

Lawmakers left town more than a month ago without renewing sweeping surveillance authorities that national security officials say are central to the country’s defense, the longest period they’ve lapsed since their enactment after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But plans are now in the works for the Senate to push through a House-passed measure to renew the surveillance authorities over the strenuous objections of civil libertarians worried about trampling over individual rights.

Several Senate sources told CNN that the chamber will take up, as soon as next week, legislation to renew the three expired surveillance provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, and will vote on at least three amendments intended to add checks to the FISA law. A bipartisan Senate majority is expected to reject those amendments – and swiftly send the renewal of the law to President Donald Trump’s desk.

On a private conference call Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chief of staff, Sharon Soderstrom, told Republican chiefs of staff to be prepared for votes on the FISA legislation, sources said, after the surveillance authorities lapsed on March 15 and the House and Senate left town without an agreement on how to renew them.

Making the bill one of the first to be considered after an extended congressional hiatus amid the coronavirus pandemic also could help rebut Democratic attacks that McConnell is reconvening the Senate amid a public health scare with the sole intention of pushing through Trump’s judicial nominees, GOP sources said.

The House passed a renewal in March striking a bipartisan compromise with Attorney General William Barr, which reauthorized the provisions while adding some civil liberties protections and changes to the FISA court process. Senate leaders tried to swiftly push the House bill through, but two vocal FISA opponents, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, threatened to block its passage.

With the Senate eager to leave town quickly amid the coronavirus pandemic, senators struck a deal to pass a 75-day short-term extension, while teeing up votes on the three amendments when the Senate took up a full renewal.

But the House did not take up or vote on the Senate’s short-term extension, leaving the provisions expired.

The three authorities in question are the “business records” provision of Section 215 of the FISA law, which gives the government authority to obtain records, as well as the roving wiretaps and lone wolf provisions of the FISA law.

The provisions also briefly expired in 2015 after Paul filibustered passage of the USA Freedom Act, the law that reformed the 2001 Patriot Act. But that lapse was exponentially shorter compared to the current impasse.

The amendments that McConnell agreed to would put several civil liberties protections in place. One amendment from Lee and Sen. Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, would strengthen the legal rights in the FISA court for targets of warrants. Another amendment from Paul would limit searches that can be conducted on US citizens under the law.

And an amendment from Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden would prevent the government from being able to obtain internet browser history under the FISA law.

The Senate will be debating the House’s renewal bill that passed in March. If the Senate adopts any of the amendments, however, the House would have to vote again on the new version of the legislation.

The House-passed bill was the result of a bipartisan agreement reached between House leaders and Barr, including some of the lawmakers who fiercely fought over the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation.

The agreement included some civil liberties protections, including preventing the government from obtaining GPS or cell site location data under Section 215 of the FISA law. By privacy advocates – and some lawmakers in both chambers – said the provisions did not go far enough.

While the expired authorities don’t deal directly with the FISA court, the House’s agreement included several Republican-demanded changes to the FISA warrant process.

The bill requires the attorney general to sign off on FISA applications dealing with elected officials and federal candidates, lets independent monitors review FISA application and gives the Intelligence Committee more access to FISA application materials.