By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican-backed proposal in the Senate to expand the FBI's secretive surveillance powers after the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub last week fell two votes short on Wednesday of the 60 needed to advance.
The measure was a Republican response to the massacre after a push for gun-control measures sponsored by both major U.S. parties failed earlier this week.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell switched his vote to 'no' at the end of the unusually long hour vote to allow him the opportunity to bring it up for consideration again.
The legislation would broaden the type of telephone and internet records the Federal Bureau of Investigation could request from companies such as the Google unit of Alphabet Inc and Verizon Communications Inc without a warrant. Opponents said it threatened civil liberties and did little to improve national security.
The bill, which the Obama administration has sought for years, “will allow the FBI to collect the dots so they can connect the dots, and that’s been the biggest problem that they’ve had in identifying these homegrown, radicalized terrorists,” Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said on Tuesday.
The vote was seen as reflective of a bipartisan drift away from policy positions that favored digital privacy, which had taken hold in the three years since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the breadth of government surveillance programs.
The post-Snowden moves included the most substantial reforms to the U.S. intelligence community since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a refusal to heed the FBI’s call for laws that would undermine encryption.
The future of the Senate proposal in the House of Representatives was uncertain, given its alliance between libertarian-leaning Republicans and tech-friendly Democrats that has blocked past efforts to expand surveillance.
The legislation before the Senate on Wednesday, filed as an amendment to a criminal justice funding bill, would widen the FBI’s authority to use so-called National Security Letters, which do not require a warrant and whose very existence is usually a secret.
Such letters can compel a company to hand over a user's phone billing records. Under the Senate's change, the FBI would be able to demand electronic communications transaction records such as time stamps of emails and the emails' senders and recipients, in addition to some information about websites a person visits
The legislation would also make permanent a provision of the USA Patriot Act that lets the intelligence community conduct surveillance on “lone wolf” suspects who do not have confirmed ties to a foreign terrorist group. That provision, which the Justice Department said last year had never been used, expires in December 2019.
Privacy groups and civil liberties advocates accused Republicans this week of exploiting the Orlando shooting to build support for unrelated legislation.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, criticized Senate Republicans for “pushing fake, knee-jerk solutions that will do nothing to prevent mass shootings or terrorist attacks.”
Though Republicans invoked the Orlando shooting in support of the bill, FBI Director James Comey has said Mateen’s transactional records were fully reviewed by authorities who investigated him twice for possible extremist ties.
Comey said there was “no indication” Mateen belonged to any extremist group and that it was unlikely authorities could have done anything differently to prevent the attack.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Andrew Hay and Steve Orlofsky)