United States

Senate Passes A Key US Surveillance Program For Two More Years

The Senate narrowly approved a two-year extension of a contentious surveillance law, despite heated debate. The legislation grants continued authority for U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance on non-Americans outside the country without warrants.

Senate reauthorizes key US surveillance program Photo: AP

President Joe Biden signed into law on Saturday a bill renewing a critical US surveillance programme, averting a potential lapse after debates regarding FBI limitations nearly caused the statute to expire. The Senate narrowly passed the legislation by a 60-34 vote just hours before its midnight deadline, securing bipartisan support and extending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's (FISA) Section 702 for two years. Expressing gratitude, President Biden commended congressional leaders for their collaborative efforts.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, during the voting process, emphasised the last-minute nature of the reauthorisation, stating, "In the nick of time, we are reauthorising FISA right before it expires at midnight." Schumer highlighted persistent efforts throughout the day that ultimately led to success.

US officials underscored the importance of Section 702, initially authorised in 2008 and periodically renewed since then, in thwarting terrorist activities, cyber intrusions, and foreign espionage. The programme has provided vital intelligence for various operations, including the 2022 elimination of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, stressing the real-world implications, emphasised that missing crucial intelligence could endanger troops or overlook threats to national security.

The reauthorised programme allows the U.S. government to gather foreign intelligence by collecting communications from non-Americans located outside the country without a warrant. Despite facing obstacles in Congress due to clashes between privacy advocates and national security proponents, the bill ultimately passed, ensuring continuity of the surveillance initiative.

Though technically set to expire, the Biden administration expected continued operational authority for at least another year, citing recent approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. However, concerns lingered regarding potential disruptions if the programme were to lapse, with communication providers indicating they might cease cooperation.

Attorney General Merrick Garland praised the reauthorisation, emphasising its indispensable role in national security efforts while highlighting reforms aimed at protecting Americans' privacy and civil liberties.

Despite classified briefings and administration urging, a coalition of progressive and conservative lawmakers pushed for further amendments, particularly concerning FBI access to American data. Proposed changes aimed to tighten restrictions on accessing American communications without a warrant, addressing concerns of civil liberty loopholes.

Sen. Dick Durbin advocated for requiring judicial approval before accessing American communications, citing constitutional principles. However, proponents of the bill argued that such measures could impede rapid responses to national security threats.

Amid revelations of past abuses and errors by FBI analysts, concerns mounted regarding the balance between surveillance and civil liberties. Despite efforts to introduce amendments, none gained sufficient support, and the bill passed without substantial alterations.

Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner, emphasised the necessity of maintaining the programme's flexibility to address evolving threats, underscoring the challenges facing national security.