The USA Liberty Act of 2017 introduced in the Senate is designed to curb warrantless government surveillance.
The USA Liberty Act of 2017 introduced in the Senate is designed to curb warrantless government surveillance.

A bill designed to curb warrantless government surveillance as introduced in the Senate today is a marked improvement over a version that debuted in the House earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said Friday.

The USA Liberty Act of 2017 (S. 2158), which takes aim at the overreach that rights groups have said the government justified under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), was ushered in by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

“This bill is a dramatic improvement over the House version of this legislation. For years, the NSA, CIA, and FBI have engaged in illegal ‘backdoor' searches, deliberately looking for and accessing Americans' private information collected under Section 702 without a warrant,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement. “These searches are unconstitutional, inconsistent with Section 702 itself, and open the door to abusive spying focused on government critics, minorities, or even journalists.”

Noting that the proposed legislation “does not address all constitutional concerns with Section 702, it represents an important step forward from the dismal status quo,” she said. “This bill would help to rein in these illegal searches by requiring the government to get a warrant when they deliberately search for and then subsequently seek to view Americans' private communications.”

The ACLU was similarly supportive of a bill proposed in the House in late-October by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that sought to extend Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for another four years but with critical reforms aimed at curbing government surveillance.

That proposed legislation would require government to obtain a warrant to search for communications of people in the United States and alert targets when the information collected under Section 702 is being used against them. It would also require government authorities to report on Section 702 use to set the stage for its use in the future.

“Importantly, it would close the so-called ‘backdoor search loophole' that allows the government to search Section 702 data for information about individuals in the U.S. without a warrant,” Singh Guliani said in a statement then, calling the bill a “significant step forward” in protecting the constitutional rights of Americans. “It would also put a stop to the illegal practice of collecting communications that are not to or from a surveillance target.”

But a coalition of rights organizations, including the ACLU, told the House Judiciary Committee in mid-October that it would not support its proposed version of the USA Liberty Act.

In a letter to the committee, the coalition of more than 40 organizations, including the NAACP and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said the bill needed to be bolstered to address concerns over the backdoor search loophole.

“The bill's most glaring deficiency is that it does not require a warrant to access content in cases where the primary purpose is to return foreign intelligence,” the group wrote, noting that “under this exception, the government would have free rein to search and access the content of religious organizations and civil society groups, Congressional staff, and other innocent Americans without a warrant simply if it asserted that the primary purpose was to gather information related to the policies of a foreign country.”

The coalition also took issue with the broad language of the bill, which it said “leaves room for the government to conduct queries and access content for law enforcement purposes without a warrant.”

The committee gave a thumbs up to its version of the bill anyway in early November.