The Senate voted Jan. 18 to extend a controversial surveillance program for six years, ending months of debate over a law that has been the linchpin of post-9/11 U.S. national security.
The bill essentially reauthorizes Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows the U.S. government to collect the communications of foreigners overseas without a warrant, even if Americans' communications are picked up and searched by officials along the way.
The measure passed 65-34, with support from Republicans and Democrats.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the extension into law by Jan. 19, despite reservations he expressed in a tweet last week.
An aerial view of the National Security Agency (Image NSA)
Before the vote Jan. 18, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina called the 702 provision "the single most important intelligence tool that exists for us to keep Americans safe."
Opponents say the program allows the government to sweep up Americans' communications under the guise of targeting foreigners abroad. Privacy rights advocates argue that this so-called "incidental" collection doesn't happen by chance.
"Individual decision making about whom to target is warrantless," Sarah St. Vincent, a surveillance researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Business Insider. "There's no oversight on a case-by-case basis. The FBI can warrantless search data, and they can do that at any stage, even if a formal investigation is not open."
On Jan. 16, the Senate voted 60-38 to invoke cloture on the bill, effectively ending debate and moving forward with a vote. A bipartisan group of senators, including Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, Steve Daines, Patrick Leahy, and Elizabeth Warren, held a press conference shortly after the decision to urge their colleagues to support a warrant requirement to search Americans' data.
"Most of us agree the program has value and is useful, but we should not use information that is collected on Americans," Paul said. "The database is enormous. Maybe millions of Americans are caught up in this database."
Paul has consistently railed against the law arguing that it violates Americans' Fourth Amendment rights.
Trump tweets, confusion ensues
Just hours before the House was set to vote on the bill last week, Trump interjected in the debate with a tweet that appeared to contradict the official White House position, setting off confusion on Capitol Hill as to where the president stands on the issue.
"'House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,'" Trump tweeted. "This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?"
Edward Snowden receives the Sam Adams award for Intelligence Integrity in Moscow. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
An hour later, after House Speaker Paul Ryan privately explained the importance of the bill to Trump, the president attempted to clarify his position.
"With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today's vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land," he tweeted. "We need it! Get smart!"
Section 702 became law in 2008 when Congress amended FISA rules. The public was left mostly in the dark about warrantless surveillance until 2013, when former National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden leaked an estimated 1.7 million classified intelligence files, covering a wide range of secret government surveillance tactics and programs.
The files revealed that Section 702 was being used to justify the PRISM program, which allowed the government to collect communications from tech companies.