The Senate Intelligence Committee has voted to extend a wide-ranging surveillance law targeting foreigners overseas, but Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon says he will block the measure unless the public is told more about the law's impact on people living in the United States.
In a closed-door session, the committee turned aside an amendment by Wyden and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado that would have directed the Justice Department's inspector general to estimate how many people inside the U.S. have had their telephone calls and emails monitored by government agents under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments of 2008.
The law, due to expire at the end of next year, would be extended to June 2015 if the committee action becomes law.
The 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which were bitterly disputed in Congress, allow the government to obtain from a secret court broad, yearlong intercept orders that target foreign groups and people overseas, raising the prospect that phone calls and emails between those foreign targets and innocent Americans in this country also will be collected and reviewed.
The 2008 amendments also shielded telecommunications companies from lawsuits that complained that the companies helped the government spy on Americans without court warrants during the Bush administration.
The proposed 2 1/2-year extension was inserted without any public notice into the Intelligence Authorization Act for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The move was unusual because it took place a full year and a half before the law's expiration date. Ordinarily, a proposed extension isn't brought up until closer to the expiration date of the law.
The committee approved the intelligence authorization bill, including the extension, at a closed-door meeting last week, at which it also rejected the Wyden-Udall amendment. Details of the meeting emerged Tuesday after the authorization act and an accompanying report were printed and made public.
Recently, the expiration dates for some other intelligence laws were set at June 2015. The accompanying report that surfaced Tuesday said that aligning the dates would enable Congress to review the laws comprehensively rather than in piecemeal fashion. Addressing the FISA amendments act now instead of waiting until next year will help assure stability of the foreign intelligence collection system during the "critical times immediately ahead," the accompanying report added.
In a letter Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Wyden said he stands ready to place a "hold" on the measure, which would force a Senate debate on it if there is an effort to pass the legislation by unanimous consent. Wyden said his goal is to amend the bill to meet his concerns. A hold by Wyden would mean it would take 60 votes to end debate and vote on the bill.
"One of the central questions that Congress needs to ask is, are these procedures working as intended?" Wyden said in a statement. "Are they keeping the communications of law-abiding Americans from being swept up under this authority that was designed to apply to foreigners?"
Wyden pointed out that the purpose of the existing expiration date of Dec. 31, 2012, was to force members of Congress "to come back in a few years and examine whether these new authorities had been interpreted and implemented as intended."
Separately, the committee, on a voice vote, rejected another amendment by Wyden and Udall to require Attorney General Eric Holder and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to submit a report to the congressional intelligence committees on what Wyden has said are secret interpretations of domestic surveillance law. Such a report would assess the problems that occur when executive branch agencies and departments rely on interpretations that are inconsistent with the public's understanding of the law.
The proposal was aimed at provisions in the USA Patriot Act that allow government agents to conduct broad searches for records in national security investigations without court warrants.
On the Senate floor in May, Wyden said "there are two Patriot Acts in America. The first is the text of the law itself and the second is the government's secret interpretation of what they believe the law means. The American people will be extremely surprised when they learn how the Patriot Act is secretly being interpreted."
Wyden has said official secrecy prevents him from disclosing the interpretations that trouble him.