Senate to begin debate over FISA surveillance program as deadline approaches

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, has urged his colleagues in the Senate not to let the surveillance program lapse, highlighting how imperative the law is to U.S. national security.
mark warner

The Senate is ready to begin its debate over a controversial surveillance program and reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), after it advanced a motion to begin the debate on Thursday.

The surveillance act was passed by the House of Representatives last week, but did not include an amendment that requires the federal government to obtain a warrant in order to view information on United States citizens that are uncovered by the surveillance of foreign targets.

Debate over FISA could begin as early as Thursday and would stretch into Friday, and many senators are hoping to pass the program’s reauthorization before it lapses on Friday night. If passed, it would authorize the program through 2026, which is shorter than the five-year extension usually approved.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, has urged his colleagues in the Senate not to let the surveillance program lapse, citing the law's importance to U.S. national security.

“No other law is more important to the work of the intelligence community than Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Act,” Warner said on the Senate floor, according to The Hill. “It is hard to overstate even the importance of this law or frankly the gravity of allowing it to sunset. Yet we are 36 hours away from that happening.”

Other senators have also emphasized that if the legislation is not renewed, it could force U.S. intelligence agencies to “go dark.”

Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dismissed the urgency of the legislation, claiming he was alright with the program lapsing for a few days in order to have proper debate. Some amendments Paul wants to debate are the warrantless searches, along with debate on a Senate version of the House-passed Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which would make it illegal for the U.S. Intelligence agencies to purchase American customer data from third parties without a warrant.

Paul also wants a vote on an amendment that would make it illegal for intelligence agencies to use FISA to allow spying on Americans as a whole. 

“They’ve abused the power, so we need more protections for Americans,” Paul said. “It’s a pretty important thing. I think the vast majority of Republicans across the country, even Democrats, think your government shouldn’t spy on you without a warrant.”

U.S. law enforcement have reportedly abused FISA section 702 about 278,000 times over a period of seven years.