Senator stalls intelligence funding bill over surveillance concerns

Wyden objects to the bill over an expansion of the FBI's ability to obtain email and Internet records

A U.S. senator has stalled an intelligence budget bill over concerns that it would expand surveillance while limiting oversight of it.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has placed a hold on the 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act, saying the bill would allow the FBI, without a court order, to demand U.S. residents' email and Internet records from ISPs and other communications providers.

The bill would allow the FBI to obtain new records through the controversial National Security Letter program, which allows the FBI to collect phone and financial records through administrative subpoenas.

The FBI has said it would be "convenient" if the NSL program could be expanded to include email and Internet records, Wyden said on the Senate floor Monday. "But convenience alone does not justify such a dramatic erosion of Americans' constitutional rights," he added.

The FBI can go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to get orders for Internet records, noted Wyden, a long-time critic of U.S. government surveillance efforts.

"I certainly appreciate the FBI’s interest in obtaining records about potential suspects quickly," he said. "But Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judges are very capable of reviewing and approving requests for court orders in a timely fashion."

Representatives of the FBI and Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and chief sponsor of the intelligence bill, didn't immediately respond requests for comments on Wyden's hold.

Senate rules allow senators to use parliamentary procedure to place a hold on bills and prevent them from coming up for a vote.

In addition to the concerns about the NSL program, Wyden objected to provisions in the intelligence bill that would "erode" the power of the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) to investigate U.S. surveillance practices.

Provisions in the bill would end the PCLOB's oversight of the privacy impact of surveillance programs to people living outside the U.S. Right now, the board has jurisdiction to investigate the privacy impact of surveillance on both U.S. residents and people living outside the country.

The limit on the PCLOB's jurisdiction is "concerning because in the digital domain individuals’ U.S. or non-U.S. status is not always readily apparent, and restricting the board in this way could discourage or even prevent the board from examining programs whose impact on U.S. persons is not clear at first glance," Wyden said. 

The PCLOB was created after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of widespread surveillance practices.

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