US surveillance powers set to temporarily expire

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Rand Paul

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Three surveillance powers available to the U.S. government are set to temporarily expire Sunday after a trio of senators opposed a bipartisan House bill that would renew the authorities and impose new restrictions.

The Senate will consider the House bill next week, after a delay, but it is unclear if President Donald Trump, a skeptic of the nation’s intelligence community, would sign it. Trump told Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who opposes the House measure, on Thursday that he doesn’t support it, according to a spokesman for the senator.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supports the legislation and had hoped to pass it Thursday, but he was forced to delay consideration past the expiration date after Lee and two other senators — Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon — said they would object.

The three senators, longtime critics of government surveillance, said the House bill would still give the government too much power to surveil Americans. The House legislation, negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, would renew several provisions the FBI sees as vital to fighting terrorism but also aim to ensure stricter oversight of how the bureau conducts surveillance.

Lee proposed a deal on the Senate floor Thursday — extension of the current authorities if the Senate would consider several amendments to the House bill that would further limit them. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, speaking on the floor for McConnell, objected to that deal, saying the Senate should instead pass the House bill.

“We’re not a rubberstamp for the House of Representatives,” Lee said. “We’re certainly not a rubber stamp for the Deep State.”

The House legislation updates the three expiring surveillance provisions, including one that permits the FBI to obtain court orders to collect business records on subjects in national security investigations. Another, known as the “roving wiretap” provision, permits surveillance on subjects even after they’ve changed phones. The third allows agents to monitor subjects who don’t have ties to international terrorism organizations.

The House legislation, passed Wednesday, is a compromise that reflects angst in both parties about the way the surveillance powers have been used, but also a reluctance to strip those powers from the government’s arsenal. Republicans and Democrats in the House broadly agreed that they did not want civil liberties sacrificed in efforts to thwart terrorism and other crimes.

In addition, Republicans had been aggressively seeking changes to the law since the Justice Department’s investigation into Trump’s campaign and Russia, while many Democrats already had concerns about government surveillance.

At the behest of those Republicans, the House compromise takes aim at some of the missteps the Justice Department has acknowledged making during the Russia investigation. Applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide were riddled with omissions and missteps, according to an inspector general report.

The measure would require that officers responsible for FISA applications certify that the department has been advised of any information that could undercut or contradict the premise of the surveillance. In the Russia investigation, some of the information the FBI omitted from its applications cut against the idea that former Trump adviser Carter Page was a Russian agent, the watchdog found.

Page has denied that and was never charged with wrongdoing.

The bill also would institute criminal penalties and other sanctions for making false statements to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which issues warrants to the FBI to eavesdrop on people it has probable cause to believe are agents of a foreign power. It would require the attorney general to approve in writing of an investigation if the target of the surveillance is a federal candidate or official.

Attorney General William Barr was involved in the negotiations with the White House and Congress, and he said Wednesday that he supports the bill.

“It is of the utmost important that the Department’s attorneys and investigators always work in a manner consistent with the highest professional standards, and this overall package will help ensure the integrity of the FISA process and protect against future abuses going forward,” Barr said.

But Barr’s support does not guarantee that Trump is on board. The president kept Congress guessing with a Thursday tweet that did not indicate how he would act.

“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 tweeted, referring to the FBI’s Russia investigation.

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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