WASHINGTON — Two senators Dec. 20 threatened to oppose and, if necessary, block passage of House legislation to reauthorize a soon-to-expire foreign intelligence collection program.
The warning comes as Congress is trying to find the best way for ensuring that the program doesn't lapse by year's end. Senate Republican leaders are considering adding a short-term extension to a government spending bill, which would allow Congress to take up revisions to the law early next year instead of hustling a bill through before lawmakers leave town for their holiday break at week's end.
But the House is pressing for fast action on legislation to allow the program to continue for four more years, a move Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are making clear they'll fight.
They have congressional allies such as Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and are backed by privacy advocates.
The lawmakers are demanding an open debate in Congress early next year that will lead to changes to the law to protect the communications of Americans swept up in electronic dragnets.
“I will actively oppose and filibuster any long-term extension of warrantless searches of American citizens,” Paul tweeted. “I'll be right there with you,” Wyden tweeted in response.
The surveillance program gives the U.S. government authority to spy on the electronic communications of foreigners located outside the United States.
The information yields intelligence that helps prevent terrorist plots, cyber attacks and other threats, according to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials. The Trump administration has pressed for a renewal of the law without changes.
Privacy advocates have pushed back, saying that information about Americans who are communicating with these foreign targets is also being incidentally swept up and needs to be protected.
The House bill made public late Dec. 19 would extend the program, known as section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, until 2021. The law is set to expire at the end of December.
A report accompanying the bill said the legislation “also makes critical improvements to privacy and civil liberties while resulting in no negative operational impact to United States' surveillance authorities.” The bill, the report added, “strikes the appropriate balance between privacy and national security.”
But Amash called the House bill “disgraceful” and said he doubted House Republican leaders had the votes needed to pass the legislation.
“When the government searches for information on Americans, that they get a warrant because under our Constitution that's what's required,” Amash said.
Two organizations at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the conservative FreedomWorks and the American Civil Liberties Union, issued statements Dec. 20 sharply critical of the House legislation.
Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, said the House bill “is the exact opposite of reform, and is markedly worse than current law.” Brandon said the bill would expand “mass, warrantless surveillance” and permit the U.S. government to use “American communications against them in court even when it has nothing to do with national security.”
ACLU’s Indian American legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said House leaders seem “poised to repeat past mistakes and quickly push for a vote on this hastily drafted legislation without giving members of Congress or the public time to debate the important privacy interests at stake.”
The Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said Dec. 19 he anticipated the Senate would renew the program for several weeks by adding a provision to a temporary government spending bill. That would give Congress more time to sift through competing bills in the House and Senate to alter and reauthorize the law.
“If I was a betting man, I would say that's the most likely outcome at this moment,” Cornyn said. “We need to figure out what we need to do to get this into the new year because we can't afford to go dark. It would be dangerous for the country.”