A Heads Up For THIS WEEK (& a Leahy-Lee WashPost Op-Ed, On Their Reforms To The FISA Surveillance Law)

This week (debate and votes expected to begin WEDNESDAY), the Senate will vote on reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) proposed by Senator Leahy and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah).  By agreement, the Leahy-Lee Amendment is one of five amendments that will receive a vote.  The current FISA surveillance authorities under the USA FREEDOM Act (authored earlier by Leahy and Lee,) recently expired.  The House has passed its reform proposals, but the Senate hasn’t yet acted (other than passing short-term extensions).  Leahy, a former prosecutor, is also a longtime leading champion of Americans’ civil liberties, and he has authored earlier successful reforms that bridge the divide between law enforcement and civil liberties (including the earlier Leahy-Lee partnership that resulted in the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015).

The Leahy-Lee FISA reforms will be voted on in the Senate as early as THIS WEDNESDAY.

Below (for information only) is the new Leahy-Lee Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post in which they outline their reforms, and the reasons for them.



FISA needs reform. Our amendment would do that — and protect constitutional rights.

By Patrick Leahy and Mike Lee

May 10, 2020


Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, are members of the U.S. Senate.

The Fourth Amendment is clear: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” While the Founders could not have imagined the technology of today, the amendment should leave no doubt that our “effects” include our private emails, texts, images and calls, which often contain the most personal details of our lives.

And yet, a law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows our government to secretly surveil Americans suspected of acting as foreign agents, a process that often falls short of our fundamental constitutional principles. Last year, the Justice Department’s inspector general discovered 17 serious errors or omissions in the FBI’s FISA applications to surveil presidential campaign adviser Carter Page. And these significant errors are not isolated incidents. When the inspector general recently performed a sampling of 29 FBI applications for FISA surveillance, he found an average of 20 “issues” on 25 of 29 of those applications. These include a failure to disclose all exculpatory evidence — evidence that might call the government’s suspicions into question — to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees FISA surveillance requests. Ensuring that a court has access to such evidence is a basic due process right guaranteed to all Americans. While the inspector general did not find that these errors were politically motivated, they are nonetheless unacceptable and highlight the need for real reform.

Such reform has become even more important in light of a bill recently passed by the House — and still under consideration by the Senate — to reauthorize several FISA programs. One of them, Section 215, allows the government to obtain the information we give to businesses — from Google searches to genetic profiles from 23andMe to our Amazon purchase histories — with no need for a probable-cause warrant. To see your information, the government needs merely to claim it is “relevant” to a national security investigation. Section 215 also allows the government to conduct FISA surveillance on a great deal of First Amendment-protected activity, which places journalists, religious and ethnic minorities, political groups and others under threat.

To address this and other problems with existing law, we are leading a bipartisan group of senators that will vote for a reauthorization of these FISA authorities, but only if we include additional reforms that are necessary to protect Americans’ privacy and the Fourth Amendment.

The key to our proposal is to substantially strengthen a program that currently allows FISA judges, in very limited circumstances, to appoint outside legal scholars — called “amici”— to independently analyze FBI surveillance requests that are particularly sensitive. Out of thousands of cases, FISA judges have called for such an independent review by a court-appointed “amicus” only 16 times. Yet this protection is critical because, unlike every courtroom you may have stepped into or any court in a TV drama, the FISA court is not adversarial — meaning there is only a government lawyer and a judge, but no one to advocate for Americans under surveillance.

We propose measures that would authorize and actively encourage judges in this secret court to seek independent amicus reviews in all sensitive cases — such as those involving significant First Amendment issues — thereby adding a layer of protection for those who will likely never know they have been targeted for secret surveillance.

We also propose that these independent advisers be given the tools necessary to provide effective oversight over the FBI and National Security Agency. For example, the House bill merely requires that the government certify to the FISA court that exculpatory evidence is fairly reflected in its application to the FISA court. But our amendment would require that such exculpatory information also be provided to the FISA court and these independent advisers upon request so they can provide meaningful advice to the court.

Our amendment would also specifically protect the First Amendment rights of the media, religious and political organizations, public officials and campaigns. Recognizing that the targeting of any of these domestic groups or officials could affect the rights of all Americans, our amendment specifically requires the appointment of independent advisers whenever substantial political or religious liberties are involved. Our colleagues, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), will also propose an amendment to prohibit the collection, without probable cause, of sensitive information such as Web browsing and Internet search history.

Our coalition of the concerned is growing. Americans across the political spectrum are rightfully alarmed at the recent parade of news showing how secret surveillance is really conducted. Every senator who cares about constituents’ privacy should vote to bring surveillance programs into harmony with our nation’s founding principles. Our amendment — and the Wyden-Daines amendment — will help achieve that important objective.

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Read more (also from the Post):

The Post’s View: Tweets won’t fix FISA. Congress can.

Neema Singh Guliani: The inspector general’s report makes it clear: We need to reform the government’s secret intelligence court

The Post’s View: The FISA court has taken steps to correct the Carter Page abuses. But more reform is needed.

Charles Lane: It should be disturbing for every American to read Horowitz’s report

David Ignatius: While we’re talking about abuse of power, let’s look at the FBI

The Post’s View: The real problems the inspector general found