WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans are aiming for a short-term extension of a soon-to-expire foreign intelligence collection program, a move that would appear to satisfy libertarian-leaning lawmakers demanding the contentious law be revised to protect the privacy of American citizens.
The Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters Tuesday that the program, known as section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, could be renewed for several weeks by adding a provision to a stopgap government spending bill. That would give Congress more time to sift through competing bills in the House and Senate to alter and reauthorize the law.
"If I was a betting man, I would say that's the most likely outcome at this moment," Cornyn said. "We need to figure out what we need to do to get this into the New Year because we can't afford to go dark. It would be dangerous for the country."
Congressional Democrats and Republicans agree the law, which lapses on Dec. 31 without action, is invaluable in helping the U.S. track foreign spies, terrorists, weapons traffickers and cyber criminals. But a number of lawmakers and privacy advocates want greater protections for the communications of Americans that are picked up during the collection of the foreign intelligence.
The Trump administration has pushed for a renewal of the law without changes. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have argued for broad authority to spy on the electronic communications of foreigners located outside the United States. They said the information yields intelligence that helps prevent terrorist plots, cyberattacks and other threats.
Cornyn's remarks came shortly after GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky declared they would oppose any government spending bill that included a permanent or long-term extension of section 702. They're pressing for open debate so changes can be made to ensure the civil liberties of American citizens are protected. They're in favor of only a temporary extension, which they defined as a matter of weeks.
"The intelligence community here in our country needs more oversight not less," Paul said. "No permanent reauthorization. Anything should be short-term reauthorization and there needs to be a full-throated debate on informing, controlling and overseeing this enormous power we allow the intelligence community to have."
Lee said the security and privacy of Americans shouldn't be competing priorities, while cautioning that the National Security Agency and other intelligence-gathering capabilities are run by well-intentioned humans and capable of errors.
"And bad things happen when those mistakes are made when we don't make sure that we safeguard for privacy of the American people," Lee said. "Governments can misuse these powers."
But even if the Senate settles on a way ahead, a showdown with House Republicans may be looming. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the House is planning to push through this week a stand-alone bill to change and reauthorize the surveillance program. He declined to provide details, but suggested the measure would propose to renew the law for much longer than the period of weeks Paul and Lee are seeking.
Conaway is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner
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