Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said lawmakers will vote this week on an amendment that would expand the FBI’s ability to conduct online surveillance and allow the bureau to compel internet companies for their customers’ browsing history and other records without a warrant.
Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Monday the proposal would strengthen the ability for authorities to “connect the dots so we are better able to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States,” evoking specifically the mass shooting in Orlando this month that left 49 people dead and 53 injured. The senator is pushing for an update to federal law that would broaden the FBI’s authority to use National Security Letters, or NSLs — a type of administrative subpoena that allows law enforcement to gather information such as telecommunication logs and financial records from private companies for investigative purposes.
NSLs don’t require a judge’s approval, and are often accompanied with gag orders that preclude recipients from telling customers they are subject to surveillance. If the amendment finds success in the Senate, investigators soon may be able to use that authority to obtain new sorts of private details, including email metadata and browsing history, Reuters reported.
The proposed amendment was tacked on to a criminal-justice appropriations bill, and Mr. McConnell’s office told Reuters that a vote is expected to occur Wednesday at the latest.
In the interim, some of the Republican Party’s most influential members of Senate have stepped up to support the offering, including Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, issued a statement calling on colleagues to agree on the amendment he’s co-sponsoring.
“In the wake of the tragic massacre in Orlando, it is important our law enforcement have the tools they need to conduct counterterrorism investigations,” Mr. McCain said.
“To be clear, this amendment would not allow the FBI access to the content of private messages, but will only allow law enforcement to look at non-content electronic communication transactional records in the course of a national security investigation, such as how much time a suspicious individual spends on a website,” Mr. McCain added.
Additionally, the amendment would make permanent a Patriot Act provision currently slated to expire in 2019 that all allows provides investigators with surveillance powers with respect to monitoring suspected “lone-wolf” terrorists.
“The United States needs a comprehensive way to battle the clear threat of lone-wolf terrorists,” Mr. Burr said in a statement. “This amendment gives the intelligence and law enforcement communities the tools they need to effectively combat this increasingly frequent threat to the American people. This commonsense amendment includes a proposal that the Administration asked for to enhance law enforcement’s abilities to catch terrorists, and Congress should give them that tool.”