The US Senate met on Wednesday to debate the reauthorization of some provisions of the USA Freedom Act, an expansive domestic surveillance bill that expired in March.
As Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the Act to the floor, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced an amendment that would explicitly bar law enforcement from snooping on Americans’ internet browsing and search histories without a warrant.
Prior to the vote, McConnell had urged his colleagues to reject the amendment. When votes were cast on Wednesday, ten Democratic senators heeded McConnell’s words, bringing the final vote to 59 Yeas and 37 Nays. One more positive vote would have given the amendment the three-fifths majority it needed to pass.
Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) railed against the reauthorization of the USA Freedom Act in February, yet didn’t cast a vote on Wednesday. Online, commenters raged at the progressive kingpin for his absence.
Yet surveillance is not a partisan issue. As often as Democrats are presented as the party of civil liberties and Republicans as the party of the ‘forever war’, the fault line isn’t between red and blue. While McConnell brought the Freedom Act before the Senate this week, it passed the Democrat-controlled House by 278-136 in March, completely free of any restricting amendments.
Moreover, the reauthorization was sponsored by Reps. Jerry Nadler (New York) and Adam Schiff (California), two Democrats who have disagreed with McConnell on almost everything, except the expansion of the surveillance state.
Among the Democrats who shot down the amendment was Dianne Feinsten (California), who has flip-flopped on surveillance throughout her three decades on Capitol Hill. Feinstein voted to extend the 9/11-era Patriot Act in 2012, and was a staunch defender of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, even after it was exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden who she described as a “traitor” in 2013.
However, as Feinstein’s Senate Intelligence Committee was compiling a lengthy report into the CIA’s use of torture in 2014, the Californian senator and surveillance enthusiast voiced “grave concerns” that the agency was spying on her committee’s computers. Ironically, Feinstein declared at the time that “the CIA search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, [and] the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.”
In fact, all ten Democrats who voted against the amendment on Wednesday voted in favor of the USA Freedom Act back in 2015, helping take it comfortably past one half majority in the Democrat-held Senate of the time.
Back to the present, senators also have two similar amendments to vote on Wednesday. The first, introduced by Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) was passed 77-19. It would strengthen legal protections for suspects under federal surveillance. The second, authored by Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), would prohibit the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court from authorizing spying on US citizens, as it did when the FBI surveilled the Trump campaign in 2016.