Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson Votes to Extend Trump's NSA Spying Powers

Bill Nelson has been representing Florida in Washington, D.C., since 1978. He was promoted from U.S. representative to senator in 2001. But he might lose a reelection bid this year to Florida's governor and ageless Lich King, Rick Scott, unless the 75-year-old can make Florida voters feel some enthusiasm for the scarecrow-made-from-used-mulch that is Bill Nelson.

Voting to reauthorize the federal government's massive, unconstitutional power to let the National Security Agency spy on Americans without a warrant won't create that enthusiasm.

Much like Broward and Miami-Dade Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz did last week, Nelson — Florida's most powerful Democrat — voted to extend Section 702 of the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for six years. As New Times noted last week, that means Donald Trump and the pool of starved piranhas that work in his cabinet will continue to have access to the most powerful government spying apparatus in human history. The bill passed 65-34, with 21 Democrats voting yes. The law now awaits Trump's signature.

Fellow Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also voted for the bill, but there's no point in scolding him here because his entire party has supported NSA spying — and far worse — since the Bush administration began vacuuming up Americans' electronic data after the 9/11 terror attacks. Technically, FISA, which was formally passed in 2008, allows the NSA to collect phone call, email, and other data from anyone who communicates with a person living overseas, whether or not the person sending messages is an American citizen. Wasserman Schultz last week was one of 55 congressional Democrats who specifically voted down an American Civil Liberties Union-endorsed amendment to force the NSA to obtain warrants before spying on most people.

Most of the program's major constitutional abuses were exposed by whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Today, Snowden, other privacy advocates, and major civil rights groups said they were furious at Congress for reauthorizing the law. In a long open letter to the public, the Electronic Frontier Foundation vowed to fight Section 702:

Today, the United States Congress struck a significant blow against the basic human right to read, write, learn, and associate free of government’s prying eyes.

Goaded by those who let fear override democratic principles, some members of Congress shuttered public debate in order to pass a bill that extends the National Security Agency’s unconstitutional Internet surveillance for six years.

This means six more years of warrantless surveillance under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. This is a long-abused law marketed as targeting foreigners abroad but which—intentionally and by design—subjects a tremendous amount of our Internet activities to government review, as they pass through key Internet checkpoints, and as they are stored by providers like Google and Facebook. Ultimately, the NSA uses Section 702 to sweep in and retain the communications of countless non-suspect Americans.

Today’s action also means six more years of FBI access to giant databases of these NSA-collected communications, for purposes of routine domestic law enforcement that stray far from the original justification of national security.

Nelson's vote today makes basically no sense and signals he likely doesn't understand what it will take to actually convince voters in 2018 that he's worth fighting for. Recent polls show that, despite Nelson's multidecade congressional career, Scott has equal or better name recognition across Florida. That's largely because Nelson rarely, if ever, sticks his neck out on controversial issues. (Nelson, who has taken gobs of money from health insurers, also refuses to endorse the growing single-payer health-care movement.)

Nelson has advocated for the government spying program for years. In 2015, he astoundingly said the bill should be extended permanently. He also complained that year about an ACLU-supported change, called the USA Freedom Act, that keeps slightly more data in the hands of telecom companies. (Nelson has not yet released a statement explaining his vote today.)

“This crucial tool provides access to electronic communications of suspected terrorists and other foreign persons located outside of the U.S., and so as we redouble our counterterrorism efforts, we must maintain what works and make the necessary changes as the threat evolves,” Nelson said from the Senate floor in 2015. “And that means remaining vigilant and using all the tools in our toolbox, including intelligence collection, homeland security protections in the fight against ISIS on the battlefield.”

His inability to change course in the face of his toughest looming reelection bid doesn't inspire much confidence. Of course, someone with real principles and a coherent political ideology would never have supported this extension in the first place.

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