A proposal to reauthorize the federal law known as FISA, designed to allow intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance of certain communications without a warrant, is making its way through Congress — it passed the House last week and next heads to the Senate.
Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and independent U.S. Sen. Angus King both serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and both say they will vote in favor of reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
King says the law has helped prevent terrorist attacks and other aggression against the U.S.
“The reading I have gotten is that if it expires, it really expires — that the authority is shut down and we can no longer collect the intelligence that is so important to protecting us,” he says.
The once-secret warrantless surveillance program was codified in law in 2008. It allows the government to collect communications of foreigners abroad through U.S. companies such as Google or AT&T, even when those targets are contacting Americans.
King says the intelligence committee has seen numerous instances in which information gathered through what is called Section 702 of the law has thwarted terrorist or cyberattacks on the United States.
Collins says lost in the debate over FISA are other sections of the law that protect individual rights.
“There are three other sections of the act — 703, 704 and 705 — that provide important privacy protections to American citizens regardless of whether they are in this country or overseas,” she says.
The House had tried to amend the law to provide additional protections, such as requiring a warrant whenever emails or other messages from an American citizen are swept up in an investigation involving someone overseas.
Collins says she believes the reauthorization bill supported by the intelligence committee strikes the right balance.
“It is the single most important tool that allows us to collect information on foreigners that are overseas and plotting against our country,” she says.
King says Congress should be able to get the legislation reauthorized even in the face of deadlines for other major bills, including an agreement to fund the federal government, which must be passed by Friday.
“In a kind of shadow war like with terrorism, intelligence is really the first line of defense. And so it would be foolhardy to allow it to expire,” he says.
Several amendments may be offered to the committee bill, including one that would ban the use of information gathered under FISA from being used in unrelated criminal investigations.
Both senators say they are willing to consider amendments that may be offered in the Senate this week, but will not agree to any changes that weaken the law.
This story was originally published Jan. 16, 2018 at 5:17 p.m. ET.