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Sen. Mike Lee wants to limit government’s ‘abused’ foreign surveillance power

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with House Republicans during their caucus at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee wants to overhaul a foreign surveillance law that he says the government has abused to spy on Americans, including Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

With some provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set to expire March 15, the Utah Republican, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a bill this week for a three-month extension of the law coupled with significant reform. Lee said he would not vote to extend FISA without the changes.

“We have no business reauthorizing these expiring provisions without substantially reforming them,” he said in a Facebook video.

Lee and a handful of senators and congressmen met with Trump last week about revising the law. The president told them that he will not support extending the surveillance law without changes.

On Tuesday, House leaders reached a bipartisan deal to renew a set of expiring surveillance programs, according to Politico.

Senior aides for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have been negotiating after it became clear that committee leaders in both parties weren’t going to come together on a proposal to reauthorize FISA before it expires.

The Senate, however, was not involved in the House talks, leaving the fate of the law unresolved. The bill is expected to pass the House on Wednesday.

Lee said the House deal doesn’t fix what’s wrong with FISA and would not have stopped the spying that occurred against Trump.

“I will do everything I can to oppose it in the Senate,” he tweeted.

And, he added that if it does pass, Trump should veto it.

“Even where the House FISA/PATRIOT Act deal claims to offer modest protection for political candidates and elected officials, it doesn’t provide the same protection for the American people! @realDonaldTrump has asked for real FISA reforms, not fake ones,” Lee tweeted.

The FISA program was designed to investigate foreign terrorists, not spy on Americans in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, Lee said. The federal government often justifies violations of privacy by claiming they need to protect the country from foreign espionage and interference. While the threat is real, abuse of government’s surveillance powers is all too common, he said.

“You ought to be concerned about what your government can do with authorities that were passed ostensibly for the simple purpose of giving the government the power to investigate and stop foreign terrorists,” he said. “You don’t want them used against the American people.”

A December Department of Justice report outlined more than a dozen failures of the FBI’s use of the surveillance law to intercept the communications of Trump’s campaign supporters. It identified at least 17 significant errors or omissions in the applications to spy on Trump campaign official, Carter Page, Lee said.

Lee said the “manipulation” of FISA against Trump was the “tip of the tip of the iceberg” that officials happened to stumble across in the course of another investigation.

“The fact is that many Americans have in fact been spied on under FISA, but we can’t find out about those circumstances. Most of them don’t end up running for president,” he said.

The proposed bill would end the mass collection of call detail records, improve transparency and accountability, and increase privacy and civil liberties protections for Americans, according to the senators.

“I have been working with Sen. Lee for years to rein in our nation’s surveillance authorities, which are still clearly too susceptible to abuse,” Leahy said.

Lee said he has pushed FISA reform for a decade, contending it’s not if but when it would be abused and “weaponized” for partisan political purposes against American citizens.

“We don’t want the government having the authority to snoop on the American people in a way that they couldn’t accomplish in a regular court proceeding,” he said.

The bill, among other things, would prohibit the collection of business records without a warrant if law enforcement would require a warrant for the same search. It would require probable cause that a known person is an agent of a foreign power or has been or will soon be involved in an act of terrorism or in clandestine intelligence activities.