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Press Release

U.S. Senate Passes Bill Legalizing Warrantless Searches of Americans’ Emails, Phone Calls

Both chambers of the U.S. Congress voted to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, with changes that, for the first time, explicitly endorse warrantless searches of millions of Americans’ communications.

January 18, 2018

Today, the U.S. Senate voted to reau­thor­ize Section 702 of the Foreign Intel­li­gence Surveil­lance Act (FISA), with changes that would for the first time expli­citly endorse warrant­less searches of millions of Amer­ic­ans’ online and phone commu­nic­a­tions. Civil liber­ties advoc­ates in both parties voted against the bill, which will now head to Pres­id­ent Trump’s desk for his signa­ture.

The Senate vote, which was not strictly along party lines, was closer than many had expec­ted at 65 to 34. The cloture vote on Tues­day was an even closer 60 to 38, with 8 Repub­lic­ans and 30 Demo­crats voting against cloture. 18 Demo­crats and one inde­pend­ent, however, sided with Repub­lican lead­er­ship to end debate on the bill, thus prevent­ing any amend­ments to increase privacy protec­tions for Amer­ic­ans.

“When Section 702 was passed in 2008, civil liber­ties advoc­ates predicted it would become a tool for warrant­less domestic spying,” said Eliza­beth Goitein, co-director of the Bren­nan Center’s Liberty and National Secur­ity Program. “Today, their predic­tions came true. Some­how, a Congress that can’t unite to protect vulner­able chil­dren from deport­a­tion or to keep the govern­ment funded was able to find consensus on erod­ing Amer­ic­ans’ privacy. Many of the same members who have ques­tioned Pres­id­ent Trump’s fitness to hold office voted to give him unpre­ced­en­ted warrant­less access to Amer­ic­ans’ calls and e-mails.

“There is a silver lining here,” Goitein added. “The vote was much closer than anyone expec­ted. The right-left coali­tion in Congress that supports surveil­lance reform has grown in numbers and in power. The long fight for Amer­ic­ans’ privacy under Section 702 and other laws is not over. We have lost a battle, but we have new confid­ence that we can win the war.”

Goitein’s recent op-eds in the New York Daily News and San Fran­cisco Chron­icle had urged Demo­cratic lead­er­ship to line up their caucuses against the bill. Goitein, who test­i­fied before Congress on the issue last year, is avail­able for comment.

Read more about the Bren­nan Center’s work on Section 702 Surveil­lance.

Read more about the Bren­nan Center’s work on Liberty & National Secur­ity.

For more inform­a­tion or to speak with an expert, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292–8381 or