Last week, Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis voted against a proposed amendment to the PATRIOT Act that would have prevented the FBI from searching U.S. citizens’ browser histories and other web browsing data without a warrant.
The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and attached to the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020, aimed to prohibit a practice created by Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which allows the government to collect nearly any form of data it deems relevant to an ongoing investigation.
It received bipartisan support, with “yea” votes coming from prominent figures on both sides of the aisle such as Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). The amendment received 59 out of the 60 votes it needed to pass, with a bipartisan set of 37 senators (Burr and Tillis among them) voting “nay” and four senators abstaining.
One of the “nay” votes, along with Burr and Tillis, was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), who was planning to introduce an amendment that would expressly permit the FBI to collect browsing data and search history without a warrant. McConnell’s amendment would have done nothing more than codifying existing practice into law; ultimately, it did not make it to the floor because the Wyden-Daines amendment failed.
The bill passed the Senate with another amendment, sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), that strengthens legal protections for targets of federal surveillance. The Lee-Leahy amendment passed with 77 “yea” votes, well over the 60-vote threshold it needed. The bill itself passed with 80 “yea” votes, Tillis among them.
Remarkably, Burr voted against the final iteration of the Reauthorization Act. It seems Burr might have regretted giving the FBI such wide-ranging powers, considering he is under federal investigation right now. His cell phone was seized by the FBI just hours after he voted against both the Wyden-Daines and the Lee-Leahy amendments.
Here is a timeline of the events last week:
May 13, 12:15 p.m. – Burr votes against the Wyden-Daines amendment, which would have prevented the FBI from searching internet data and browser history without a warrant. The amendment fails.
May 13, 4:20 p.m. – Burr votes against the Lee-Leahy amendment, which protects targets of federal surveillance. The amendment passes anyway and becomes part of the bill.
May 13, 6:54 p.m. – Federal agents execute a warrant on Burr and seize his cell phone, ramping up the investigation into allegations that he engaged in illegal insider trading by dumping stock after receiving a confidential briefing about the likely impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
May 14, 1:24 p.m. – Burr, perhaps realizing he just made a huge mistake, votes against the Reauthorization Act.
The bill now goes to the president’s desk.