Congress Approves Six-Year Extension of Surveillance Law


Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, used a procedural maneuver to prevent a vote on reform amendments that would imposed far more sweeping warrant requirements on government surveillance.

Tom Brenner/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted to extend by six years a law that authorizes the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program, essentially ending a cycle of debate over wiretapping and privacy that began with the leaks in 2013 by Edward J. Snowden, a former intelligence contractor.

The vote, 65 to 34, approved sending to President Trump a bill to keep through 2023 an activity that traces back to a once-secret program created by the George W. Bush administration following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Congress first legalized it in 2008 by enacting a law called Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

Under Section 702, the government, without a warrant, may collect from American companies, like AT&T and Google, the emails, texts, phone calls and other private messages of foreigners abroad — even when those targets communicate with Americans.

Congress last extended that law without changes in 2012. But after Mr. Snowden’s leaks in 2013, a bipartisan coalition of civil-liberties-minded lawmakers pushed to impose significant new constraints, like requiring officials to obtain a warrant in most instances when searching the repository for Americans’ communications.

With Thursday’s final vote, that effort failed.

Complicating matters, the bill does impose a limited new warrant requirement for F.B.I. agents to read any emails of an American who is already the subject of an open criminal investigation. But that requirement is so narrowly written that it would not apply to the overwhelming majority of such searches, including national-security investigations and assessments of criminal tips before an investigation is opened.

The House approved the bill last week after voting down an amendment that would have imposed a far more sweeping warrant requirement. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, then used a procedural maneuver to prevent similar amendments that proposed reform from being put to a vote in the Senate.

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