W.Va. senators vote to extend federal government spying powers


Parthenon File Photo, Douglas Harding | Associated Press Photo, Susan Walsh

West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R)

The United States Senate passed a bill earlier this month reinstating controversial surveillance powers meant for investigating terrorism and espionage, but which allow the federal government to access internet browsing and search histories of American citizens without court approval.

Both West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R) voted for the bill, called the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020, and against an amendment to prevent such access by federal agencies such as the FBI and the CIA.

The Senate voted 80-16 in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act extension and rejected the proposed amendment by one vote, 59-37, despite a bipartisan effort to pass it and limit the federal government’s surveillance powers, which were granted in the 2001 PATRIOT Act following the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, and have since received widespread criticism from Americans of all political ideologies.

The amendment which was rejected by just one vote was proposed by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Steve Daines (R-Montana).

On the Senate floor, Wyden said, “Collecting this information is as close to reading minds as surveillance can get. It is digital mining of the personal lives of the American people (…) It is open season on anybody’s most personal information.”

Following the vote, the American Civil Liberties Union led a coalition of more than 50 organizations in writing a letter urging House leadership to pass the bill only with the inclusion of the Wyden-Daines amendment, which would have been approved by the Senate if two Democratic senators who likely would have supported it were not unable to participate in the vote.

The letter reads: “The FBI should not be allowed to use the PATRIOT Act to surveil Americans’ online activity without a warrant. Internet search and browsing history is extremely revealing in nature and the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to obtain this information… [The Wyden-Daines amendment] is precisely designed to stave off the kind of scandals that led to a dramatic loss of trust in United States intelligence agencies over the past two decades. Indeed, this would help address serious concerns among the public that civil liberties are at a heightened risk during this time of crisis. This is an acute concern for the many groups that the FBI has wrongfully targeted in the past, including activists, communities of color, and the press.”

A previous statement released by the ACLU before the Senate vote occurred states that the bill, without the aforementioned amendment, is “not consistent with Americans’ fundamental rights.”

Regardless, both Manchin and Capito voted in favor of the bill and against the Wyden-Daines amendment.

In a press release sent following the vote, Manchin states that the U.S. is facing “immense foreign and domestic threats” and is protected primarily because of the “incredible work” of federal agencies such as the FBI and the CIA.

The release states: “I voted for the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act because this bipartisan, bicameral legislation ensures our national security needs are met and includes important reforms to address privacy concerns. I will always support our military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies as they put their lives on the line to protect Americans every day (…) As foreign and domestic threats continue to threaten our nation, this legislation will ensure that our intelligence agencies can do their jobs effectively and thoroughly to protect us.”

According to a recent report by The Hill, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) stated that the House likely will vote later this month to reauthorize the FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020.

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].