Stewart, Lee at odds over renewal of foreign surveillance program

Background image from Pixabay; seal from Wikipedia | Composite by St. George News

ST. GEORGE – While Rep. Chris Stewart defended a vote in the House Thursday renewing a government surveillance program targeting foreign citizens overseas, Sen. Mike Lee said he opposes the measure because he believes it does not adequately protect the privacy rights of Americans whose information may be swept up in the intelligence-gathering process.

Set to expire Jan. 19, the program, known as “Section 702” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed the House by a vote of 256 to 167.

Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement Thursday that the program is necessary because the nation faces more threats today than ever before.

“In order to keep U.S. interests and troops abroad safe from harm, we must ensure that our intelligence community has the tools it needs to provide imperative intelligence to our soldiers,” Stewart said.

The surveillance program has been wrongfully demonized through “deception and misinformation” by those opposing its renewal, he said.

In this file photo, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks at the Memorial Day observance held at the St. George Cemetery St. George, Utah, May 29, 2017 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

While the program focuses on foreign targets, Americans’ emails, phone calls and other communications get vacuumed up in the process. Privacy advocates and lawmakers from both parties have argued for years that government agencies should have to get warrants if they want to look at Americans’ communications in the database.

The bill approved by the House allows the FBI to continue scanning the database, using search terms, for information on Americans. But it would require investigators to get probable cause warrants to view the actual content in cases unrelated to national security.

Exceptions would apply, such as for murder, kidnapping and other crimes specified in the bill.

The House rejected an alternative proposal from Rep. Justin Arash, R-Michigan, that would have imposed stiffer restrictions on the FBI, requiring warrants to query the database at all.

“It is not bulk collection of information. It is not a program that targets Americans,” Stewart said. “It is about foreign terrorists on foreign soil and keeping the homeland safe. Section 702 of FISA is one of the most critical national security tools used by our intelligence community.”

As for the rest of Utah’s Republican representatives in the House, Reps. Mia Love and John Curtis voted for the bill. Rep. Rob Bishop voted against bill, telling The Salt Lake Tribune that it didn’t go far enough.

Parts of the program are too vague and need clarification, Bishop said, adding there also needs to be a more a defined limit set on what any attorney general can do in order to avoid potential abuses.

The fate of the program’s renewal now goes to the Senate where, like many bills that leave the House, its future may be in question. Senate Republicans maintain a razor thin 51-49 majority, so just one or two dissenting voices among their ranks could stall or sink the surveillance program’s renewal.

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats applauded the House action, saying it was a critical step in protecting Americans and U.S. allies and “I have faith that my former colleagues in the Senate will follow the House’s lead.”

“Our security is not a partisan issue,” said Coats, a former senator from Indiana.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, delivers a speech on the Senate floor, U.S. Senate, Washington, fall 2015 | Photo from video courtesy of the office of Sen. Mike Lee, St. George News

According to The New York Times, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, is moving to make it so the House version of the program’s renewal goes through the Senate without any amendments added.

However, a number of both Democrat and Republican senators have already voiced their opposition. Among them are Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. They issued a joint statement Thursday voicing their disappointment in the 702 program’s potential renewal without stricter privacy protections.

They also mentioned the “USA Liberty Act,” their own proposed amendment to the 702 program.

Unfortunately, the House bill falls short in providing critical protections for Americans whose communications are routinely swept up by this powerful foreign intelligence tool. In the Senate, our USA Liberty Act (S. 2158) provides a sensible compromise, preserving the government’s ability to use this important national security tool, while also protecting Americans’ fundamental Fourth Amendment privacy rights. Our bill makes clear that Americans need and deserve both security and protection of their privacy.

Now it is time for Leader McConnell to do what Speaker Ryan did, and allow Senators a chance to vote and offer amendments on the Section 702 reauthorization debate. The American public deserves a full and transparent debate, and members of the Senate deserve to have the same opportunity as did members of the House to discuss and amend legislation reforming this vital surveillance tool.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden are also anticipated to oppose the bill’s renewal without modification, according to The New York Times.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week. Should the measure pass, it will renew the surveillance program for another six years.

Associated Press reporters DEB RIECHMANN and JONATHAN LEMIRE contributed to this article.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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