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Lawmakers call for changes to surveillance act

Lawmakers are discussing the renewal of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows the surveillance of foreigners outside of the U.S. And while there is generally bipartisan support for the act on national security grounds, reports show that the National Security Agency has inadvertently collected data from Americans under the law, raising concerns. Byron Tau of The Wall Street Journal joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    If a deal isn't struck by midnight this Saturday the federal government will shut down. But that's not the only item on lawmakers' to-do list before the holiday recess. Less talked about is the renewal of a law known as the FISA Amendments Act that allows for the surveillance of foreigners outside of the United States. And while there is generally bipartisan support for the law on national security grounds, some on both sides of the aisle are calling for changes. Among the concerns, American citizens will be spied upon without a warrant. Byron Tau of the Wall Street Journal who has been following this story joins me now from Washington D.C.

    So let's talk about some of the issues, what are some of the sticking points here?

  • BYRON TAU:

    The sticking point is, there is a big group of reformers on Capitol Hill that crosses party lines that want more privacy protections for Americans who might incidentally get caught up in this spying, whether it's, they're communicating with a target overseas or whether their communications just get accidentally lumped into big baskets of data that Internet companies give to the NSA. A lot of these lawmakers want to require a warrant for the NSA or any other government agency to listen or look at these communications.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So this is something that, you go to Rand Paul and Ron Wyden can agree on, on different sides of the spectrum.

  • BYRON TAU:

    That's right. There are conservative Republicans and there are liberal Democrats who are pushing for big changes to this including a warrant requirement. And there are some other bipartisan coalitions that are pushing for more modest changes. So this is one issue on Capitol Hill where the typical party lines and the debate is a little bit scrambled.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what happens if this doesn't get passed by January 1?

  • BYRON TAU:

    Well that's a good question. The FISA court, it's a special court that oversees all of these major surveillance programs, says they wouldn't have to shut them down immediately. But this is the key surveillance law that underpins a lot of electronic spying that the United States does and it has to be renewed at some point next year. Otherwise there's a great deal of uncertainty in the intelligence community and eventually these programs would have to start to wind down.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. Given that everyone is talking about taxes for the first couple of days this week and the government shutdown. How likely is it that lawmakers agree on this?

  • BYRON TAU:

    Well we're about 15 days away from the expiration of the FISA law. And there's no clear path forward for Congress to deal with this. A lot of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are dug in against putting a renewal in the spending bill and there's only five days left of congressional action before they're expected to recess for Christmas. So I don't think anyone on Capitol Hill quite knows where this is going.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Byron Tau of The Wall Street Journal thanks so much.

  • BYRON TAU:

    Thanks for having me.

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