Senate Rejects Bid To Prevent Warrantless Government Surveillance Of Internet Use

The move to block warrantless surveillance of Americans' web browsing and search data scrambled partisan lines, with 10 Democrats key to its defeat.

The Senate on Wednesday narrowly defeated a measure seeking to prevent Americans’ internet browsing and search histories from warrantless surveillance by the federal government.

The vote was 59 in favor, 37 opposed ― short of the necessary 60 votes needed for adoption.

Offered as an amendment by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to the renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the vote on it was marked by a scrambling of the Senate’s partisan divide.

Backing the proposal were 34 Democrats, 24 Republicans and one independent. But, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a prime opponent, voting against it were 27 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

“Is it right at this unique time when millions of law-abiding citizens are at home, for the government to be able to spy on their internet searches and web browsing without a warrant?” Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked on Wednesday, referring to the coronavirus epidemic. “That’s exactly what the government has the power to do without our amendment.”

Wyden, saying the Senate should stop “further eroding Americans’ privacy and civil liberties,” pinned the blame for the amendment’s defeat on McConnell, 

But also key were the “no” votes by the 10 national security-minded Democrats: Tom Carper of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Dianne Feinstein of California, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Doug Jones of Alabama, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Carper said he opposed the amendment because of concerns expressed by House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), that it would threaten the entire law from being reauthorized by requiring the lower chamber to sign off on the change.

Shaheen said she believes the secretive FISA court, which oversees requests for surveillance warrants, will act as a sufficient check on the government’s requests for Internet browsing history.

Whitehouse said private companies have “far greater” access to Internet search history and he was not inclined to hamstring federal officials on the matter.

“I actually trust the U.S. government more than I trust Google Inc.,” he added, referring to Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Four senators were absent for the vote: Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) As the vote broke, support from just one of them would have passed the amendment.

The vote on reauthorizing FISA, which expired in March, is expected later this week.

This story has been updated with comments from senators.