Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said this morning he will not vote for a year-end continuing resolution to keep federal government going if it permanently reauthorizes federal surveillance regulations without strong protections to shield Americans from snooping.
Paul was one of a bipartisan but small group of senators who gathered at a press conference today with privacy activists from both the left (the American Civil Liberties Union) and the right (FreedomWorks). The coalition hopes to keep lawmakers from quietly renewing surveillance authorities under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments without any public debate.
"I absolutely oppose permanent reauthorization," Paul said. "Any reauthorization has to be paired with more oversight, not less."
On hand alongside Paul were Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), and Paul's regular across-the-aisle partner in fighting unwarranted surveillance, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
"There has not been a moment of open debate," Wyden said. "The administration is actually going backward on transparency."
FISA, as its name suggests, is supposed to be used to keep tabs on foreign subjects of interest, be they potential terror threats or rival governments. Because the targets are not Americans and not on American soil, they do not get the full protection of the Fourth Amendment; the surveillance is all handled secretly through a special FISA court.
But over time, thanks in part to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, it has become clear that the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) have also been using these powers to snoop on American citizens and using the information gathered for domestic purposes. All of this is happening without warrants and without our knowledge, bypassing the Fourth Amendment entirely. We do not even know how many Americans have had their data or private communications collected by the FBI and NSA, and the NSA has backtracked on a promise to give an estimate.
At the end of the year, the powers granted under Section 702 expire. The senators who spoke this morning have been pushing for stronger protections against unwarranted surveillance before agreeing to renew the law. But with the timer ticking down, and with a host of competing bills that have been introduced and passed out of committee with no discussion, it's not entirely clear how it's even possible for a debate to happen before Section 702 expires.
For a look at the bills, check out my analysis here. That went up a month ago; since then, one additional reauthorization bill has been quickly introduced and passed through the House Intelligence Committee that would require warrants in some cases but has a whole host of exceptions that would allow warrant-free domestic surveillance of Americans.
Lee raised the possibility of kicking the can down the road but not very far, sggesting a very short renewal to allow for debate about what Section 702 should look like.
The problem is that the GOP leadership and the White House clearly do not want this debate. They want to renew Section 702—and perhaps even to make it permanent—with no changes or even with expanded surveillance authorities. The resistance from folks like Paul and Wyden probably increases the chances that they'll try to sneak reauthorization through in a spending resolution.
So that Saturday Night Live Jeff Sessions holiday-themed "Elf on the Shelf" joke is apt, though not in the way the show intended. Rest assured that even if Sessions is acting like he has no idea what's going on in the White House, his Department of Justice and the NSA want to be able to keep track of what's going on in your house.