Senate Setback for Move to Give FBI More Warrantless Spying Powers

Congress is backing off from a push to grant the Federal Bureau of Investigations more warrantless surveillance powers.

Lawmakers had been attempting to use the annual intelligence policy bill to allow the FBI to obtain more sensitive digital information from Americans, using only a subpoena.

That effort, however, has been abandoned, this year, according to a recently published Senate Intelligence Committee report on the legislation.

“This expansion of government surveillance authorities was both far-reaching and intrusive, potentially covering records related to Americans’ email exchanges as well as their login history, IP addresses, and internet browsing history,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore).

Wyden said the proposal would have given the FBI such spying authorities “with no court oversight.”

In the report, published late last week, on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Wyden noted that he would back the legislation, the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2017, with the additional surveillance powers stripped from the bill. He had held up the proposal on the Senate floor, in June 2016, after its authors sought to expand FBI’s spying authorities.

Hawkish senators had attempted to grant the FBI such powers, in the wake of the June 12, 2016 shooting at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. The massacre left 53 people wounded and 49 others dead, including the shooter, Omar Mateen; a 29-year-old security guard who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, in a 911 call made before the shooting.

“The American people want policies that protect their security and their liberty,” Wyden said on the floor of the Senate, at the time, announcing his plans to delay the legislation. “After a tragedy, and you can almost set your clock by it, increasingly proposals are being brought up that really don’t much of either.”

The move to jam the additional spying provisions into the annual intelligence policy bill also came after they were defeated in a separate, stand-alone vote. One week before, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had put forth the proposal, as part of a Justice Department appropriations bill. McCain’s amendment fell one vote shy of passing the 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold, with mostly Republicans supporting the measure.

Even before the Pulse shooting, proponents of the surveillance state were pushing for the FBI to be able to bypass judicial oversight to obtain revealing private metadata, through so-called National Security Letters.

In May 2016, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) proposed granting the FBI such powers; in an amendment to legislation that would have modernized online privacy rules, no less.

The bill — which had sought to strip civil authorities of warrantless surveillance powers, for 6-month old emails — had passed the House 419-0. It died in the Senate after being weighed down by Cornyn and other supporters of expansive federal surveillance.