House votes down surveillance reform effort

House votes down surveillance reform effort
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House lawmakers on Thursday voted down language that would have closed what critics call the “backdoor search loophole” in current surveillance law.

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The amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill failed 198-222.

Intelligence Committee Republicans had lobbied against the proposed edit in the days leading up to the vote, petitioning colleagues in a Thursday letter to “give our Intelligence Community all of the authorities it needs to detect and stop terrorist attacks.”

Identical amendments sailed through the House in 2015 and 2014, although they were stripped out before the funding bill reached President Obama’s desk.

But on Thursday, lawmakers were casting their votes just days after a mass shooting in Orlando, which killed 49 and wounded 53 others, the deadliest incident of its kind in U.S. history.

The vote also came in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., which have inflamed fears that authorities are struggling to track and prevent terrorist planning.  

The amendment, from Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), would have required the government to obtain a warrant before searching government databases for information about Americans.

It would also have prohibited the government from requiring companies to build security vulnerabilities into their products — so-called backdoors in encryption — to ensure the government could access suspects’ communications.

“If this amendment were enacted, the Intelligence Community would not be able to look through information lawfully collected … to see if the Orlando nightclub attacker was in contact with any terrorist groups outside the United States," Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) wrote in their Wednesday letter.

The vote is a stinging loss to privacy advocates, who believe that efforts to reform federal surveillance remain unfinished.

“This amendment strikes the appropriate balance between national security and civil liberty and is a much needed next step as Congress continues to rein in the surveillance state and reassert the Fourth Amendment,” Massie said in a statement released prior to the vote.

Critics say federal intelligence agencies have used the so-called loophole to collect information about Americans through a law designed to target foreigners.

The law, Section 702 of a 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, authorizes the National Security Agency’s PRISM and Upstream collection activities and is aimed at foreign spies, terrorists and other targets. But Americans’ information can be “incidentally” caught up in the collection, and intelligence officials have acknowledged that they have used “U.S. person identifiers” to search through that data.

Section 702 is not up for renewal until the end of 2017, but lawmakers on both sides are already girding for battle.

Both the FBI and the CIA have said that they have found no signs that Orlando gunman Omar Mateen, who was born in the U.S., had any connection to a foreign terror group.