House Judiciary panel votes to extend overseas surveillance powers

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted to reauthorize a law that gives officials broad leeway to conduct surveillance overseas when the target isn’t a U.S. citizen.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the panel’s chairman, who sponsored the measure, heralded the move, saying that it would give U.S. intelligence officials the tools they need to combat terrorist groups and their allies abroad.

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“Foreign terrorists continue to search for new ways to attack America,” said Smith in a statement following the vote. “They are committed to the destruction of our country and their methods of communication constantly evolve. We have a duty to ensure that the intelligence community can gather the information they need to protect our country."

The bill, which was approved by a vote of 23–11, reauthorizes the law under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for another five years.

Some Democrats have expressed their concern that the powers authorized under the measure might be used to target American citizens and legal residents in the United States.

But the White House and Republicans have designated the reauthorization of the measure, which was set to expire at the end of the year, as one of their highest intelligence priorities.

The last time FISA was overhauled, in 2008, Democrats clashed bitterly with Republicans and the George W. Bush White House over the spying powers.

There are signs that passions on the issue have cooled, however. Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to approve the measure, 13–2. It will now head to a vote before each chamber.

Three Democrats voted for the measure on Tuesday: Reps. Howard Berman (Calif.) and Mike Quigley (Ill..) and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (Puerto Rico).

The panel's ranking member, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), voted against the bill, saying that more congressional oversight over the administration's implementation of the FISA law was needed before it should be reauthorized. Conyers also said he plans to offer an amendment that would shorten the bill's extension from 5 years to 3 years.

"I oppose this long-term extension because the public does not yet have an adequate understanding of the extent of any adverse impact this Act has had on the privacy of American citizens," said Conyers at the hearing. "And, neither the act nor this bill provide proper safeguards to ensure adequate and effective oversight."

—This story was updated at 4:58 p.m.