Sen. Mike Lee pushing proposal to curb government surveillance powers

Sen. Mike Lee pushing proposal to curb government surveillance powers

(Win McNamee, Pool Photo via AP, File)



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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee is leading the charge to curtail U.S. surveillance powers which he says government officials abused to wrongfully target President Donald Trump during the 2016 election.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was intended to detect and thwart the efforts of agents of other countries, not to go after American citizens, he said in a speech on the Senate floor.

“It’s certainly not something that’s intended to be used as a tool for bullying a presidential candidate,” the Utah Republican said. “And now that it has been used to bully and surveil incorrectly the 45th president of the United States, we need to do something about it.”

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 77-19 for an amendment Lee and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., offered to a House-passed bill that would place even stricter limitations on federal surveillance powers.

The House bill doesn’t fix what’s wrong with FISA and would not have stopped the spying on Trump, Lee said. He earlier said he would do everything possible to oppose if it were to pass without the amendment and urge the president to veto it.

Lee’s position puts him at odds with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky,, who called for his colleagues to pass the legislation “free of amendments that would jeopardize important tools that keep America safe.”

The Senate is debating amendments proposed by Lee and others Wednesday and Thursday before voting on the bill. Should the amended bill pass, it would go back to the House.

The House bill also reauthorizes three programs that expired in mid-March. One deals with “roving” wiretaps that track individuals across multiple devices. Another called “lone wolf” surveils people not connected to a known terrorist group. It also renews Section 215 in the law that allows the government to request “tangible things” such as documents relevant to a national security investigation, with some changes.

Lee said the amendment he and Leahy propose would make reforms to applications for surveillance through FISA, including Section 215 which he said is the part of the law that was abused in order to spy on Trump’s presidential campaign.

The amendment also requires the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which now permits only government lawyers and judges to be present, to include an outside legal analyst or friend of the court to ensure surveillance applications comply with the law. It also requires the government to disclose its evidence to the expert, even if the material undermines its case.

The proposal also calls for the Justice Department inspector general to file an annual report on the accuracy of FISA applications and the DOJ’s compliance with the law.

“We believe ours is an approach to enact those reforms that we believe are most essential to protecting the rights and the privacy of Americans from a system that by its very nature, in some instances by design, is rife with opportunities for abuse,” Lee said in the floor speech.

Lee rejected arguments that his and Leahy’s amendment would keep the FISA court from approving applications quickly and would make it harder to get approval.

“This is simply untrue,” he said just before the vote.

Lee said he finds it “especially tone deaf” that the FBI, which the two reports found violated its own policies, is being defended.

In April, the Justice Department inspector general said he had randomly selected 29 applications the FBI made to the secret FISA court in order to monitor Americans believed to be involved in providing foreign intelligence and/or aiding terrorism. He found errors in every single one.

This review came after an audit last year found 17 serious errors in the FBI’s requests to the court to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Page was under investigation for allegations he colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election. The Mueller report showed that investigators found no direct evidence that Page coordinated Trump campaign activities with the Russian government.

“We cannot, notwithstanding the urging of many, simply wave our hands and say we don’t have to worry about this. Oh, it’s all OK because we’ve got to worry about national security. Or it’s OK because this is about foreign intelligence or foreign intelligence gathering,” Lee said.

Lee said the amendment is designed to protect people’s rights and doesn’t take anything away from national security agencies, but injects more fairness and accountability into the process.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.

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