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Senate Intelligence panel approves Ratcliffe as spy chief

Ratcliffe’s withdrawal set off a monthslong merry-go-round at the leadership of the clandestine community, as the president selected counterterrorism chief Joseph Maguire to temporarily assume the DNI post. Maguire ruined his chances of becoming the permanent chief earlier this year after Trump heard he had authorized congressional briefings on Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 campaign.

Trump then replaced Maguire as acting DNI with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who possessed limited intelligence experience but began making a series of organizational changes to the country’s spy agencies. Those included last week’s announcement that the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which is part of ODNI, would take over election security briefings for political candidates and organizations.

Ratcliffe, who was elected to Congress in 2015, sits on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees and was a member of Trump’s impeachment defense team. He drew national attention in a hearing last year where he accused former special counsel Robert Mueller of treating Trump unfairly during his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“Donald Trump is not above the law. He’s not. But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where volume 2 of this report puts him,” Ratcliffe said at the time. He was referring to the volume of the Mueller report that declines to reach a conclusion about whether the president had obstructed the Russia investigation.

Ratcliffe worked hard at shedding the image of a partisan Trump acolyte during his confirmation hearing earlier this month.

“Let me be very clear: Regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I provide, if confirmed, will not be impacted or altered as a result of outside influence,” Ratcliffe said. He added that he would give intelligence briefings to the president even if he knew Trump would disagree with the conclusions, or if he believed it risked his job.

Tuesday’s vote came the day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tapped Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to temporarily serve as the Intelligence committee’s chairman, after Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) decided to step aside while he faces an FBI investigation into his stock trades.

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Senate passes FISA renewal bill, sends it back to the House

The vote came mere hours after the announcement that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who in March argued passionately against letting the authorities lapse, will temporarily step down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee amid an ongoing probe into his stock trades.

The FISA renewal bill includes new privacy protections that Attorney General William Barr had helped negotiate and would impose new requirements on the FISA court system. Those were inspired in part by President Donald Trump’s allegations that federal agencies improperly used the spying tools to wiretap his former campaign adviser Carter Page during the initial probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

It would also permanently end an already deactivated NSA program that had allowed the agency to obtain, with judicial approval, Americans’ phone records in terrorism probes.

Thursday’s successful passage came months after the House voted to reauthorize the authorities with modest changes. The Senate, however, couldn’t reach an agreement for quick passage of the House bill amid objections from the chamber’s privacy advocates. The chamber eventually adopted a 77-day extension as a short-term solution, but the House never took it up.

The intelligence tools the authorities enabled have remained offline ever since.

The measure now kicks back to the House. While the bill’s supporters haven’t outright opposed the change made by the Senate, progressives and libertarians in the House could use it as leverage to reopen debate on the legislation and try to amend it even further — especially among those GOP members who have demanded that the chamber to reopen for business as usual despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), secured the amendment expanding legal protections, called the legislation a “good bill.”

“We got some good reforms here. They are consistent with many of the aims that House members who negotiated the last House bill had in mind,” Lee told POLITICO before the final vote. He had previously lobbied Trump to veto the measure if it reached his desk unaltered.

“I’m certainly not going to tell them what to do with it,” Lee added, though he suggested he might support something similar to a proposed amendment from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) that would have protected Americans’ internet browsing and search histories from federal surveillance. It came up just one vote shy of the 60-vote threshold.

Some House members seem itching for a fresh surveillance fight.

“Although I am pleased that the Lee-Leahy Amendment passed, I oppose the bill without further amendment. If permitted by House rules, I will offer amendments,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who co-sponsored an alternative renewal bill to the one passed by the House, said In a statement to POLITICO.

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Senate defeats amendment to shield browsing histories in FISA searches

Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted in a floor speech that Americans are relying on the internet more than ever due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Don’t those Americans deserve some measure of privacy?” he asked, arguing that without the amendment “it is open season on anybody’s most personal information.”

Senators were expected to vote later today on an amendment from Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which aims to bolster legal protections for individuals targeted by federal surveillance.

On Thursday they will vote on an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would prohibit the FISA court from authorizing surveillance of a U.S. citizen. Then they will move onto final passage.

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