Dick Durbin

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) listens during a Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting on Capitol Hill on April 4, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images).

Rights Groups Cheer Senate Bill to Curb Warrantless Spying on Americans

The SAFE Act "would make critical reforms to stop persistent abuse" and is "meticulously designed to account for operational needs," said one advocate.

Just weeks away from the expiration of a U.S. government surveillance power with a history of abuse, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a reauthorization bill welcomed by rights groups who have long demanded reforms.

Congress and U.S. President Joe Biden last year temporarily extended Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits warrantless surveillance targeting noncitizens located outside the United States, to allow for ongoing discussions of possible changes opposed by the intelligence community and its allies on Capitol Hill.

"There is little doubt that Section 702 is a valuable national security tool. However, while only foreigners overseas may be targeted, the program sweeps in massive amounts of Americans' communications, which may be searched without a warrant," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted Thursday.

Durbin, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) are leading the Security and Freedom Enhancement (SAFE) Act with support from 11 other senators who have backed reform efforts in response to rampant abuse, particularly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

"The documented abuses under FISA should provoke outrage from anyone who values the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens," said Lee. "From warrantless searches targeting journalists, political commentators, and campaign donors to monitoring sitting members of Congress, these actions reveal a blatant disregard for individual liberties."

After noting that "even after implementing compliance measures, the FBI still conducted more than 200,000 warrantless searches of Americans' communications in just one year—more than 500 warrantless searches per day," Durbin framed the SAFE Act as "a sensible, bipartisan path forward on reauthorizing Section 702 with meaningful reforms."

Specifically, the bill would require agencies to "obtain a FISA Title I order or a warrant before accessing the contents of Americans' communications collected under Section 702—but not before running queries," the sponsors explained. It also includes additional layers of internal supervision for queries involving Americans and would close the data broker loophole, among other provisions.

"Sen. Durbin and Lee have carefully crafted a bipartisan compromise bill," said ACLU senior policy counsel Kia Hamadanchy. "While this legislation does not include every reform civil liberties groups have been pushing for, it does include meaningful changes that will rein in the government's warrantless surveillance of Americans and help ensure that our privacy is protected. The Senate should take up this bill immediately."

Demand Progress policy director Sean Vitka agreed. While also noting that it doesn't have everything rights advocates wanted, he said that "the SAFE Act is a major development in the ongoing fight to rein in warrantless government surveillance of people in the United States."

"We commend Sen. Durbin and Lee for their leadership," Vitka added, stressing that "an overwhelming number of Americans from across the political spectrum want Congress to seize this once-in-a-generation moment and get this done."

Jeramie Scott, senior counsel and director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Project on Surveillance Oversight, similarly praised the pair for crafting the bill, which he said "takes a pragmatic, measured approach to reform that draws upon a wide range of proposals" to offer "a clear path forward to reauthorizing Section 702 while ensuring that our rights are protected."

Jake Laperruque, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology's Security and Surveillance Project, also celebrated that the bill "would make critical reforms to stop persistent abuse" and is "meticulously designed to account for operational needs."

"We're just a few weeks away from the expiration of FISA 702—it's time for congressional leadership to stop stalling and allow a vote on these critical reforms," Laperruque declared.

The SAFE Act comes just days after Wiredrevealed that U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) privately tried using peaceful protests at the home of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as proof of the need to block long-demanded reforms to Section 702.

Turner notably already faced calls to resign after he announced that his panel had provided members of Congress with "information concerning a serious national security threat," which news outlets reported was that Russia has made progress on a space-based nuclear weapon to target U.S. satellites.

Amid that controversy—which was widely seen as a ploy to force the reauthorization without reforms—House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) abruptly delayed action on Section 702 in February. However, the Republican leader toldPolitico on Thursday that "the current plan is to run FISA as a standalone the week after Easter."

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