With little debate, the US Senate voted 65 to 34 Thursday to renew the law authorizing key surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency.
The programs, known as Prism and Upstream, allow the NSA to collect online communications of foreigners outside the US. Prism collects these communications from internet services, and Upstream taps in to the internet's infrastructure to capture information in transit. Some communications from Americans and others in the US are collected in the process.
The vote Thursday renews for six years Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which authorizes the programs. Last week, the House approved a bill renewing the programs. Though the mere existence of the programs caused an uproar when an NSA contractor revealed them in 2013, the lawmakers' debates over renewing the programs focused this year on whether the FBI should have to satisfy more legal requirements before accessing Americans' communications from NSA databases for the agency's investigations.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the programs by leaking information about them to journalists in 2013. After the news coverage, the administration of President Barack Obama declassified much information about the programs.
In the debate leading up to the vote Thursday, Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, called FISA "the single most important tool that we have." US Intelligence agencies say the programs are vital for defending national security.
Thursday's vote came after Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, invoked a rule preventing lawmakers from considering amendments in the debate leading up to a final vote on the renewal. That meant the Senate wouldn't debate reforms proposed by privacy advocates that would require the FBI get a warrant before searching the NSA's database of information scooped up by the Upstream and Prism programs.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, and Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said these reforms were necessary to keep the spy programs constitutional.
Paul said during a debate that the reforms wouldn't stop the spy programs, or keep the FBI from accessing the information collected by the NSA. "It means they would have to ask a judge," Paul said. "It's called the Fourth Amendment."
In a statement, Laila Abdelaziz, who campaigns for the privacy advocacy group Fight for the Future, criticized the Senate for missing an opportunity to reform the surveillance programs. The House of Representatives considered that reform last week but voted down an amendment that included a strict warrant requirement.
"The FISA reauthorization bill that just passed turns the internet into a powerful surveillance weapon that can be used by the government against its own citizens," Abdelaziz said.
Supporters of the surveillance programs said they're constitutional and that the renewal was appropriate.
"Everybody who knows anything about Section 702 knows that it is one of the most important sources of foreign intelligence that we have," said Robert Litt, an attorney who served as general counsel for the Department of National Intelligence during and after Snowden's disclosures.
What's more, Litt said, the public outrage about the surveillance programs has faded as the program's scope and purpose became more clear. "I think as people learned more and more about Section 702, they became more and more comfortable with the overall nature of the program," he said.
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