Daines, Tester look to provide citizen protections under foreign surveillance act

Montana’s two U.S. senators joined a group of bipartisan lawmakers on Wednesday to seek greater protections for American  citizens as the federal government conducts foreign surveillance.

Congress is set to consider reauthorizing a key counter-terrorism tool known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows intelligence officials to spy on communications of non-citizens outside the country.

They’re looking to amend the language.

“The tool is important to prevent future terrorist attacks, but it’s a very powerful tool and must not be used at the expense of Americans’ privacy and civil liberties,” Sen. Steve Daines said Wednesday. “We need strong oversight and strong reforms to prevent it from being misused.”

Daines, who appeared with Sen. Jon Tester and a half-dozen other lawmakers at a press conference, said Section 702 of FISA was created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to help the intelligence community gather covert information.

Congress intended the changes to promote Americans’ safety, Daines said, not diminish their freedom. Other lawmakers said the tool has been used to collect, store and use information on American citizens without a warrant.

“It’s plain and simple: this is about maintaining our national security and ensuring Uncle Sam follows the Constitution,” Tester said.  “This bill will defend Montanans from increasing government intrusion and protect our freedoms and constitutional rights.”

Together, they’re introducing the USA Rights Act in hopes of reforming the government surveillance program, a move they contend will balance privacy with national security.

“The USA Rights Act makes these necessary reforms and makes strides toward protecting the privacy of the American people,” Daines said. “It would be irresponsible and a breach of our duty to rush the reauthorization of the program in Congress. Without careful oversight, without accountability, power of this magnitude is too easily abused.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said that while the Constitution doesn’t protect foreigners in foreign lands, it does protect U.S. citizens. He and others called the current law unacceptable as it’s written.

“When you gather information from foreigners in foreign lands without the Constitution, that information is gathered without constitutional protections and should never be used against Americans,” Paul said. “This is a bedrock principle of our country and it’s what brings Democrats and Republicans together.”

Authority under the 702 provision is set to expire next week. The USA Rights Act amendment, introduced by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., has the bipartisan support of 44 lawmakers in both chambers as well as a number of outside conservative groups.