Senate rebuffs warrantless wiretapping reforms

The Senate moved a step closer Thursday to re-authorizing key provisions of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA) without major changes, rejecting three proposals to reform warrantless wiretapping.

Backers of these proposals argued that there needed to be greater transparency in the federal government’s domestic surveillance practices, saying that large-scale data collection is likely to ensnare the innocent, while opponents warned that extended debate would increase the likelihood of important terror-fighting tools expiring at the end of the year.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, insisted that the law was working as intended without any need for additional privacy protection amendments.

“Through four years of oversight, this committee has not identified from all these reports, from all of the meetings, from all of the hearings … a single case in which a government official engaged in a willful effort to circumvent or violate the law,” she said Thursday, calling the few lapses “inadvertent.”

But Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said that when he tried to find out how many Americans had communications subject to government surveillance, he could not even get an estimate from the intelligence community.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced an amendment intended to discover how secret FISA courts actually interpret the law. Merkley’s proposal would have required the attorney general to disclose rulings that contain a “significant interpretation” of the surveillance law “unless such disclosure is not in the national security interest of the United States.”

Merkley’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 54 to 37. “Fifty-four senators vote against Americans being allowed to know what surveillance law means,” tweeted Julian Sanchez, a Cato Institute research fellow specializing in technology and civil liberties. “Woo democracy.”

Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy proposed cutting the extension from five to three years. Leahy’s amendment was rejected by 52 to 38.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul offered an amendment extending Fourth Amendment guarantees to electronic communications, like emails and text messages.

“Why is a phone call more deserving of privacy protection than an e-mail?” Paul asked on the Senate floor.

Paul’s amendment, co-sponsored by Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, was voted down 79 to 12.

A final FISA re-authorization vote is expected Friday.

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