How could the same Senate Democrats — and Jeff Flake — who characterize the Trump administration as one that continuously erodes democratic norms and might even be “Stalinist,” go ahead and vote to expand the same administration’s spying powers for six years?
We asked them about how they arrived at that curious position. None voiced any concern over giving Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the FBI access to NSA data, which can be searched without a warrant.
The bill, which passed 65-34, extends the NSA’s surveillance powers until 2023 and consolidates the FBI’s authority to search those communications without a warrant. The decade-old law is designed to surveil foreign “targets,” but law-abiding Americans are swept into it as well.
Twenty-one Democrats and one independent joined Republicans in reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the National Security Agency to collect mass amounts of Americans’ communications without a warrant.
“It explicitly authorizes warrantless searches of law-abiding Americans, and allows for the collection of communications entirely among innocent Americans who reference the wrong foreigner, and gives the attorney general unchecked power to decide when the government can use what it finds against us, to pick just three of its many troubling provisions,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement following the vote.
The Thursday vote came two days after Senate Democrats — in a narrow vote in which Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was the deciding factor — helped pass a motion to successfully block any possible amendments to the FISA bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced an amendment on Tuesday to ban backdoor searches. Hours later, she voted to shut down the amendment process. When we asked her why she ultimately voted for the motion, Feinstein said, “Because I think, you know, we went over it in Intelligence. I sort of know where things are. And I think we should just get it done, is my view.” Feinstein, whom Trump has referred to as “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein,” recently released a transcript of congressional testimony from the co-founder of Fusion GPS, the firm that famously authored the dossier on Trump’s ties to Russian officials.
Angus King, an independent senator from Maine, said he voted to block the amendment process because “I worked on amendments on the committee bill that I think were adequate.” Asked whether he trusts Sessions to allow backdoor searches without warrants, he declined to comment. King is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Democrats backed mass surveillance under the Obama administration as well, but critics point to the hypocrisy of fixating on Trump’s authoritarian tendencies while expanding his domestic surveillance abilities. The Senate vote came a week after 55 House Democrats helped pass the 702 reauthorization, which happened during a news cycle dominated by reports about Trump’s mental state.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., when asked if he trusts the Trump administration with warrantless surveillance powers said, “I’m 1,000 percent for it, for the security of our nation.” His vote was not necessarily a surprise, though. Manchin has voted in line with Trump’s position in a majority of cases.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones doesn’t have any concerns either. “I’m comfortable with the bill,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he’s “fairly comfortable with 702.” As for whether Sessions could abuse his power under the law, Whitehouse said, “I think it’s quite well constrained. I think heads would roll and jobs would be lost if people cheated on the rules.”
But it wasn’t only the Democrats whose double standards were on display. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics. On the same day he gave a speech drawing parallels between the Trump administration and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he laughed when we asked him why he would give the same administration broad spying powers. He declined to answer.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, all voted against the motion to kill the debate. Cruz, however, ended up voting for the final bill.
“I think we have to stay very, very focused about the implementation of the legislation and do that through the Judiciary Committee, as well as the Intelligence Committee,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said.
On Friday, Trump signed the FISA bill into law. “This is NOT the same FISA law that was so wrongly abused during the election,” he tweeted. “I will always do the right thing for our country and put the safety of the American people first!”
Apparently, when it comes to mass surveillance, even his staunchest opponents think so, too.