Despite Orlando, Senate will not expand FBI surveillance powers

Civil-liberties groups criticized a Senate bill that would have expanded the FBI's secret surveillance capabilities.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence holds a hearing on NSA surveillance programs at the Capitol in June 2013.

UPDATED: 3:30 pm Wednesday

A bill expanding the FBI’s ability to monitor telecommunications records without a warrant failed to pass the Senate on Wednesday, in what was seen as a victory for civil libertarians and privacy advocates.

The legislation, filed as an amendment to a criminal justice funding bill, would have broadened the list of records the FBI can request from phone and Internet companies using National Security Letters, which do not require judicial approval and are often accompanied by a gag order mandating secrecy on the part of the recipient. Civil libertarians and electronic-freedom groups have criticized the letters as invasions of privacy. On Tuesday, the ACLU sent a letter to lawmakers calling on them to vote against an expansion of "authorities that have a history of abuse."

The Senate rejected the amendment 58-38, two votes short of the 60 necessary to move ahead with the bill.

Currently, the FBI can use the letters to force a company to hand over users’ phone billing records. The proposal would allow the agency access to records such as the senders and recipients of emails and corresponding timestamps, as well as internet browsing histories.

The bill highlights law enforcement’s struggle to adapt to what they describe as terrorism’s changing nature. In 2010, notes Laurent Belsie of the Christian Science Monitor, then-Attorney General Eric Holder lamented that the threat “has changed from simply worrying about foreigners coming here, to worrying about people in the United States.”

“You didn’t worry about this even two years ago – about individuals, about Americans, to the extent that we now do,” said Mr. Holder then.

Since the 9/11 attacks, some terrorist groups have also changed their preferred strategy, wrote Brookings Institute terrorism expert William McCants in an email to the Monitor last week.

“They, like many other terrorists, used to be fixated on building bombs. But they’ve learned that mass shootings are easier to organize without detection and generate just as much media attention. ISIS has been exceptionally good at inspiring young men to carry out these attacks in its name.”

On Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who serves as the second-highest-ranking Republican in the chamber, said the bill would “allow the FBI to collect the dots so they can connect the dots, and that's been the biggest problem that they've had in identifying these homegrown, radicalized terrorists.”

Wednesday vote, while close, underscored a reluctance by lawmakers to introduce new expansions of surveillance since the breadth of the National Security Agency’s spying capabilities were revealed in leaked information from former contractor Edward Snowden.  

This report contains material from Reuters.

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