The government's authority to intercept electronic communications of foreigners — both spies and terrorist targets — will expire at year's end unless the Senate extends a law that is under challenge from a bipartisan group of senators.
In a case in which national security bumps up against privacy, more than a dozen senators say they're concerned that conversations and emails of Americans are swept up in the monitoring. Americans, they contend, can then become targets of surveillance without the protection of a court warrant.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struggled Thursday to get the five-year extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before the Senate, but those questioning the law blocked any action until they could get votes on their proposals to modify the bill.
The Obama administration strongly defended the law, saying in a statement that it has been "invaluable to the U.S. government's efforts to detect and prevent threats to America and its allies, while providing robust protections for the civil liberties and privacy of U.S. persons."
The statement added: "Failure to reauthorize the (law) would result in a significant loss of intelligence and impede the ability of the intelligence community to respond quickly to new threats and intelligence opportunities."
The House in September approved a five-year extension of the law by a vote of 301-118.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a liberal Democrat from Oregon, led the effort to block consideration of the bill unless it's amended. Along with a dozen colleagues, including conservative Republicans, Wyden demanded votes on amendments that would:
—Require the director of national intelligence to report publicly findings on the privacy impact of the surveillance law. Specifically, the report would include estimates, if they exist, of the number of U.S. communications collected under the law.
—Fix what the senators call a loophole that allows the government to search the communications collected, in a deliberate attempt to find phone calls and emails of specific Americans without a warrant or emergency authorization.
Communications of anyone in the United States cannot be monitored without a warrant. A special, secret court yearly certifies the monitoring of foreigners overseas, if the government provides assurances for the privacy of Americans caught in the surveillance.
The administration's response to Wyden and his supporters emphasized the protections in the law. It said the government must apply to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant to target a U.S. person anywhere in the world. The exception is an emergency, which requires subsequent court approval of an attorney general's emergency authorization.
The government also responded directly to Wyden's specific concerns.
Denying any loophole, the government said current law prohibits so-called "reverse targeting" - in which a person outside the U.S. is monitored as a pretext for targeting a person inside this country.
If communications of Americans are inadvertently intercepted, the law requires procedures that restrict the acquisition, retention and dissemination of information without the person's consent.
The government said it couldn't provide the estimates the senators sought, noting that two independent inspectors general have determined that it is not feasible to provide actual numbers or estimates of Americans who are inadvertently monitored. The administration added that any effort to provide such numbers by deliberately trying to identify Americans would adversely affect their privacy.