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Senate Votes to Shut Down Rand Paul Filibuster Against Surveillance Act Renewal

Lawmakers will advance legislation that expands the power of the feds to snoop on American citizens.

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Rand Paul
C-Span

The Senate joined the House today in rejecting reforms to federal surveillance laws to make sure that the private communications of Americans are not snooped on by officials without warrants.

The Senate voted 60-38 this afternoon in favor of cloture to end debate and to prevent any amendments prior to a formal up-down vote on the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017. (Small clarification: Debate will be limited to 30 hours prior to the vote. So Paul and Wyden and others will be able to speak at length, but they won't be able to stop the vote.)

This bill, should it pass, will renew and expand the snooping powers of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments for another six years. Though the law has the world "foreign" in its name, the reality is that it has been used to collect and access communications from Americans, often without warrants and without our knowledge.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have been trying to amend the bill so that it would require the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) to get warrants in order to query or access any communications records (like emails or phone calls) from American citizens when they get drawn into international surveillance.

In a press conference before the vote today, they were joined by other supporters in the Senate, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said, "The United States should not be in the business of warrantless searches of dragnet surveillance of American citizens. … Opposing warrantless mass surveillance is not a partisan issue."

Today's vote means reforms to provide stronger Fourth Amendment protections from unwarranted searches will not happen and a filibuster can't actually stop the scheduled vote. The USA RIGHTS Act is essentially dead, unless the full vote fails. (Spoiler: Since the renewal bill survived a cloture vote, it won't fail.)

So what did the Senate actually vote for in the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017? This bill doesn't just renew Section 702 for six years; it also codifies permission for the FBI to access and use data secretly collected from Americans for a host of domestic federal crimes that have nothing to do with protecting America from foreign threats. It has added some unusually worded warrant requirements that will protect some people—but only when they're actually suspected and are being investigated for criminal activities.

Furthermore the bill will give the NSA permission to attempt to restart what are known as "about" searches, access to communications that merely reference a foreign target, not just communications to and from that target. The NSA voluntarily ended these types of searches once it became clear they were gaining access communications that they had no authority to be viewing. This bill will allow them to attempt to restart it unless Congress acts separately to stop it.

The vote was a nailbiter: They needed exactly 60 votes to end debate and prevent a filibuster. "Credit" for the passage of a bill that strips away a little bit more of Americans' privacy rights goes not just to fearmongering Republicans insisting that adding warrant protections expose us somehow to terror attacks, but to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who cast the final vote to end debate and push the bill forward.

Also worth noting: While Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had been fairly quiet during the public discussion and lead-up to the vote, he voted against cloture, siding with Paul and Wyden.

Below, Paul gave an impassioned speech before the cloture vote that pretty much previewed what he would have been talking about if he had gotten the chance to filibuster:

He has promised more debate this week, but unless something shocking happens, it's over: Six years of expanded domestic surveillance authorized in a law designed to fight foreign terrorism and espionage.

UPDATE: Here's the list of senators who voted the opposite of the rest of their parties, the Democrats that voted to push the surveillance bill forward and the Republicans who voted against it.