Terrorist surveillance bill advances in House

The bill reauthorizes the 2008 law that lets intelligence agencies begin surveillance of overseas terrorists without immediately getting court approval. The bill was passed in 2008 with bipartisan support after intelligence officials said they cannot always move quickly enough to gather intelligence given the need to wait for court approval.

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During debate on the rule on Tuesday, supporters said the reauthorization of the law is needed to ensure U.S. intelligence officials are able to continue gathering information to defend the United States from attack.

"It is with the tools that the [FISA Amendments Act] provides to our intelligence community that we're able to monitor our nation's enemies overseas," said Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.). "Without this authority, the ability to track those individuals who aren't American citizens and want to do harm to this country [would be brought back to] the state as it was on September 11, 2001."

Consideration of the bill on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks seemed to be no accident. Before the debate, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) called on all members to support the bill as a way to continue U.S. efforts to fight terrorists, such as the 19 that carried out the attacks against the United States 11 years earlier.

Nonetheless, Democrats indicated that they oppose the bill, and said they worry that it does not strike the proper balance between liberty and security. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said the bill would allow the government to intercept communications without having to name their target, and said Congress needs more information about how current law has worked before it reauthorizes it.

"I think the proper order to go about things, if members of Congress are to make an informed decision about whether these vast powers given to the federal government are being used appropriately, would be to have a classified briefing first, before bringing five-year extension bill to the floor," Polis said.

Rep. Robert "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) added that currently, the government can collect such a wide swath of information that it is likely collecting information about U.S. citizens. However, he said, because the process is secret, Americans have no way of knowing if the government is abusing this authority.

"With nearly all of this oversight being conducted in secret, the public has no choice but to take the government at its word," he said.

Nugent noted that the bill and current law both include language that protects U.S. citizens abroad from being the target of U.S. government surveillance. Specifically, a court order has to be obtained before that kind of surveillance can be undertaken, and these court orders are subject to judicial review.

The rule for the FISA bill also covers legislation that would authorize a land swap between the federal government and the state of Minnesota. The Minnesota Education Investment and Employment Act, H.R. 5544, is also expected to get a vote on Wednesday.

After the rule vote, the House easily approved H.R. 4264, the FHA Emergency Fiscal Solvency Act, which would allow the Federal Housing Authority to charge higher insurance premiums in order to stay solvent. That bill passed 402-7.