Measure to Bring Civil Liberties Experts into Secret Court
George Washington is often quoted as telling Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was meant to “cool” hot legislation from the House, just as saucers were used to cool tea. Senators today furiously debate whether the extra-constitutional rule that enables the filibuster is needed to facilitate the cooling of political passions, or if the 60-vote threshold has transformed the Senate into an abattoir for change of any sort.
Whichever side one comes down on in that debate, shouldn’t the Senate move swiftly on an issue it had already overwhelmingly approved with a filibuster-proof majority in the recent past?
In 2020, 77 senators voted in favor of the measure then known as the Lee-Leahy Amendment, which would give the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) access to independent advice from experts on civil liberties, known as amici, when the government seeks to spy on domestic media, as well as religious, political, and other particularly sensitive groups. The amendment died when the underlying bill reauthorizing government access to business records was pulled at the last minute by President Trump.
Now known as Leahy-Lee, this measure is being proposed as an amendment to the defense authorization bill. Leahy-Lee would satisfy liberal concerns that the FBI uses powers meant for foreign intelligence to target the First Amendment rights of vulnerable minorities and protest groups. Conservatives have fresh reason for concern given the revelations from the Durham investigation about FBI applications before the FISC to spy on a presidential campaign aide. Time and again, the FBI has proven reckless and disingenuous.
Aside from National Eat a Peach Day and the like, a 77-vote margin is about as enthusiastic a showing as any substantive bill gets in the Senate. And yet when there was a recent chance to append Leahy-Lee to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2023, the amendment appeared nowhere in the manager’s report.
The Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability is joining with the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Prosperity, Demand Progress, the Due Process Institute, FreedomWorks, Restore the Fourth, and the Wikimedia Foundation to call on senators to hold a floor vote on Leahy-Lee now or in the coming lame duck session.
In our coalition letter, we told the Senate that “Leahy-Lee would safeguard Americans’ First Amendment rights by empowering the Court with the advice of amici when government seeks to use foreign intelligence surveillance in such sensitive investigative matters. Expert amici are the only representatives the public has before the FISC, even though these court decisions can secretly affect the privacy of every single person in the United States.”
We urge the Senate to show that it can respond to popular support and broad, bipartisan agreement in its own ranks to hold a vote on this needed check and balance on federal surveillance.