US Senate votes to extend surveillance tools for 77 days

The US Capitol before dawn in Washington on March 13, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US Senate agreed on Monday (March 16) to extend a set of government surveillance tools for 77 days to allow lawmakers time to consider broader changes to the divisive domestic eavesdropping programme.

The Senate had been due to begin voting on Monday evening on a Bill passed in the House of Representatives last week that would have reauthorised and reformed the programme.

Instead, senators agreed unanimously on the temporary extension to allow consideration of amendments to the House Bill.

In a rare bipartisan vote, the Democratic-led House backed the "USA FREEDOM Reauthorising Act of 2020" last Wednesday. But the measure, which renews and updates domestic surveillance rules under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), must pass the Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump to become law.

FISA faces stiff opposition from privacy advocates, including liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans.

Mr Trump, who is convinced that surveillance tools covered by the legislation were improperly used against his 2016 campaign, has demanded tighter controls on the authorities allowed under the law.

Backers of the programme consider it an essential tool for intelligence agencies' efforts to fight terrorism.

The Bill passed in the House was written with the involvement of Attorney General William Barr, considered one of Mr Trump's strongest defenders. But it still faced too much opposition to pass the Senate without votes on amendments.

It was not immediately clear how the House would handle the temporary extension, which was retroactive to last Saturday. House members are out of Washington on a week-long recess and are not due to return before March 24.

A senior Democratic House leadership aide said House leaders were discussing how to proceed.

Three provisions of the FISA programme expired last Sunday.

Some senators also backed the compromise that led to the temporary extension because it allowed them to immediately consider legislation, also passed by the House last week, to assist Americans as they grapple with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

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