The Senate on Thursday passed a bill to renew a critical foreign intelligence collection program dubbed the "holy grail" because it allows U.S. spy agencies to conduct surveillance on foreign targets abroad.
The Senate voted 65-34 to reauthorize the controversial program for six years. The bill, which already has been passed by the House, now heads to the White House, where President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said reauthorizing the program "ensures that America's intelligence officers can continue to use this vital tool in their 24/7 critical mission, while remaining true to the nation's values."
While the program focuses on targets abroad, Americans' emails, phone calls and other communications get vacuumed up in the process of collecting the foreign intelligence. Privacy advocates and lawmakers from both parties have argued for years that government agencies should need warrants to look at Americans' communications in the database.
The bill that passed lets the FBI keep scanning the database of the intelligence collected on foreign targets, using search terms, for information on Americans. But it would require a warrant to view the actual content in cases unrelated to national security. Exceptions would apply, such as for murder and kidnapping cases. It also would require a warrant only in criminal investigations that are in their final stages.
The bill's proponents say the new provision will further safeguard Americans' communications, but opponents say the warrant requirement would rarely kick in and does little to further protect the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. The main thrust of the intelligence program, which provides insights into the thinking and actions of U.S. adversaries, is unaffected.
Before the vote, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, called the program the "single most important intelligence tool that exists" to keep America safe. He said it has been repeatedly reviewed by the courts and Congress and has been found to be constitutional. Still, he acknowledged those who say the bill does not offer enough privacy protections.
"I think what we've seen is a process that's tried to take into account concerns that not just members but the American people have had with programs that operate within a degree of secrecy," Burr said. "I respect the fact that some still disagree with us — though the number is small."
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also said the program was a critical tool to safeguard the United States.
"I do not believe it has been abused or will be abused," Warner said. "This legislation includes meaningful reforms on furthering civil liberties protections, making sure that questions many members have asked over the years will — a year from now — be able to have those answers."
Some of Warner's Democratic colleagues voted against the bill.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he thinks it gives too much power to the government to listen in on and collect the communications of law-abiding Americans who have nothing to do with terrorism. He said that in responsible hands, this should not be a concern, but in the wrong hands "Americans' information could be easily collected by the government without their knowledge, and used for malevolent purposes."
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said the bill's biggest shortcoming was the lack of a warrant requirement when the government searches for some intercepts of Americans' communications.
"As a career prosecutor, I have applied for search warrants," she said. "They are inconvenient. But that is the point — to make sure that, before the government accesses an American's private information, it observes the checks and balances that are fundamentals of our democracy."