Congress approved a measure Friday that would renew expansive U.S. surveillance authority for five more years, rejecting objections from senators who are concerned the legislation does not adequately protect Americans’ privacy.
The bill passed the Senate, 73 to 23. The House approved it in September, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it before the current authority expires Monday.
The lopsided Senate vote authorized a continuation of the government’s ability to eavesdrop on communications inside the United States involving foreign citizens without obtaining a specific warrant for each case. The surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has been credited with exposing several plots against U.S. targets but also has drawn fire from civil liberties advocates.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee and a supporter of the bill, said that about 100 arrests have occurred in terrorism-related plots over the past four years — 16 in the past year — and that electronic surveillance played a role in some of them.
The Bush-era provision expanded the government’s surveillance authority to intercept electronic communications in the United States without a warrant if the targets are foreigners overseas. The surveillance is conducted under a blanket approval issued once a year by a special court.
But the emails and phone calls of Americans who communicate with the foreigners are also being swept up. A number of senators voiced concerns that intelligence agencies could search through the data for particular communications of U.S. citizens without a warrant — what they called a “backdoor search loophole."
The Senate’s leading critic of the measure, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed to drop his insistence that the government obtain a warrant for such searches in exchange for Senate leadership’s assurance that it would hold a vote on a Wyden amendment aimed at assessing the law’s privacy impact on Americans. Wyden’s amendment got 43 votes Friday.