(UR) Washington, D.C. — On Wednesday, a bill that would’ve broadly expanded the FBI’s ability to capture an individual’s internet records — by bypassing the need for a warrant altogether — was narrowly defeated.
Falling just two votes short of the 60 required for it to advance, the bill — sponsored by Senator John McCain and attached to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Act of 2016 — sought to allow the federal government to use “national security letters” (NSLs) to track suspected terrorists’ browsing history and email metadata, among other things.
“We aren’t asking for content, we’re asking for usage,” McCain stated in defense of the failed amendment. “This is an important tool.”
But others saw the bill — civil liberty and Fourth Amendment issues aside — as completely unnecessary on its face, given that the USA Freedom Act, passed last year, already grants agencies the ability to conduct warrantless surveillance in urgent situations.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, for instance, argued Wednesday that the USA Freedom Act already “allows the FBI to demand all of these records in an emergency and then go get court approval after the fact. So unless you’re opposed to court oversight, even after the fact, there’s no need to support this amendment.”
Wednesday’s vote was part of an ongoing attempt by senators to greatly expand the use of NSLs, which bypass courts and often involve gag orders. Such instruments, if utilized in the capacity many long for, would compel private companies to supply government agencies with individuals’ personal internet data.
But McCain’s bill would’ve also made permanent a “lone wolf” provision of the USA Freedom Act that, according to the ACLU, already“improperly allows the government to obtain secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders for individuals who are not connected to an international terrorist group or foreign nation.”
To that end, McCain himself invoked the “lone wolf” aspect of the proposed amendment — as well as the recent mass shooting in Orlando — in promotion of the legislation on Monday.
“In the wake of the tragic massacre in Orlando,” the senator stated in a press release, “it is important our law enforcement have the tools they need to conduct counterterrorism investigations and track ‘lone wolves,’ or ISIL-inspired terrorists who do not have direct connections to foreign terrorist organizations but who seek to harm Americans.”
But Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the ACLU, sees through that argument. Speaking to AlterNet, she said:
“We shouldn’t have a kneejerk reaction to say that there needs to be more surveillance and less oversight. Gutting civil liberties is not an appropriate response. This amendment runs counter to the conversation over the last several years where we talked about how do we rein in surveillance abuses. This says, ‘let’s expand the types of information the FBI can get without ever seeing a judge.”
In contrast to Wednesday’s vote in the Senate, last week the House voted down a measure — attached to a spending bill just days after the Orlando shooting — that would’ve prohibited the government from searching the online communications of American citizens without a warrant.
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