Clock ticking down on NSA surveillance powers

Clock ticking down on NSA surveillance powers
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Congress will return from its weeklong Thanksgiving break facing a rapidly-shrinking timeline to reform and renew an authority the intelligence community says is critical to identifying and disrupting terrorist plots. 

The key piece of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as Section 702 and passed in 2008, is set to expire at the end of the year. It allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect the texts and emails of foreigners abroad without an individualized warrant — even when the subjects communicate with Americans in the U.S.

Throughout the fall, privacy advocates on Capitol Hill pushed for changes to the law to curtail what critics say is a violation of Americans’ Fourth Amendment protections — a push that seemed to gain some momentum despite the objections of the Trump administration.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteGOP chairmen say they have deal with Justice on documents Comey memo fallout is mostly fizzle Impeaching Rosenstein? Some Republicans are talking about it MORE (R-Va.) has long said that a clean reauthorization of Section 702 would not pass the House, where the powerful Freedom Caucus has banded together with privacy-minded Democrats to advocate for tighter restrictions on how government investigators can use data gathered under the program.

But with just a few weeks left until the Dec. 31 deadline, even those tracking the debate closely aren’t sure what reforms, if any, will see the floor in either chamber.

The House Judiciary Committee earlier this month voted to pass its package to extend the law with some modest reforms — tweaks that the Freedom Caucus, long seen as the most likely roadblock to a clean reauthorization, says don’t go nearly far enough. 

But asked by The Hill after the vote if they would be able to block the measure, Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanCNN's Cuomo clashes with conservative lawmaker: You're 'selective in your outrage' Impeaching Rosenstein? Some Republicans are talking about it Tiberi endorses would-be successor ahead of GOP primary MORE (R-Ohio) had a three-word answer: “I doubt it.”

In the Senate, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThis week: Senate barrels toward showdown over Pompeo Sunday Shows Preview: Emmanuel Macron talks ahead of state dinner CIA declassifies memo on nominee's handling of interrogation tapes MORE (D-Calif.) failed to push through additional restrictions in an Intelligence Committee vote last month. Like the Freedom Caucus, some privacy advocates saw her as their best chance in the chamber of pulling the votes needed to make significant changes. 

She told The Hill: “I tried — and I didn’t do it. I lost.”

Feinstein voted to advance the underlying bill out of committee after her amendment failed and, like Jordan, she is pessimistic about her chances of forcing changes if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRand's reversal advances Pompeo After Dems stood against Pompeo, Senate’s confirmation process needs a revamp Overnight Cybersecurity: Senators eye path forward on election security bill | Facebook isn't winning over privacy advocates | New hacks target health care MORE (R-Ky.) brings it to the floor for a vote — something that’s far from certain.

“I could do it on the floor — not that I’d win it, but I’d try,” she said.

Even the future of the Judiciary proposal — already a compromise measure seen as the most likely vehicle for modest reforms — appears in some jeopardy. The House Intelligence Committee, which shares jurisdiction over Section 702, is not on board with the so-called USA Liberty Act and is in quiet talks with leadership about the future of the law.

Those discussions have set off alarm bells among USA Liberty Act supporters, who are fearful that leadership will attach a watered-down version of the bill to must-pass legislation at the end of the year. 

“We are concerned by reports that, over the coming break, your office will meet with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence ‘to chart a path forward’ on Section 702,” a bipartisan group of Judiciary lawmakers wrote in a letter to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWatchdog group sues for donor list from Ryan-aligned nonprofit Terminating Budget Committees not as absurd as it sounds The writing is on the wall for bump stocks and Congress should finalize it MORE (R-Wis.) last week. 

“We believe that you will meet resistance on any measure that further weakens the privacy protections built into the USA Liberty Act.”

House lawmakers could pursue a short-term extension of the law to allow the two committees to iron out their differences — but most lawmakers are not keen to place the NSA program in legal limbo. 

In the Senate, close watchers of the debate have long suspected that McConnell will wait to see what the House, with its weightier group of reform advocates, winds up passing. Some speculate he may follow a version of the playbook he used in a failed 2015 bid to pass a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act — wait for the House to go first, then try to pass a clean renewal at the last minute in an attempt to jam it through the lower chamber.

But that gambit resulted in a reform measure known as the Freedom Act and now, as he was then, McConnell will likely be forced to accept at least some changes to the existent authority — a clean reauthorization is almost certainly a nonstarter in the House. 

At issue is whether federal investigators should be required to obtain a warrant before searching databases of Section 702-derived data for Americans’ information — under current law, a warrant is not needed. 

The USA Liberty Act would require criminal investigators to obtain a court order before viewing the content of any Americans’ communications collected under the NSA program — but would not require a warrant to search the database in the first place, the broad change sought by privacy advocates. It would also not put any restrictions on queries in national security cases, which constitute the vast majority of searches.

The Senate Intelligence Committee legislation, favored by leadership, includes some small reforms but eschews a warrant requirement entirely. House lawmakers have characterized that bill as dead on arrival in the lower chamber.

Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyCongress should build on the momentum from spending bill Overnight Tech: Zuckerberg grilled by lawmakers over data scandal | What we learned from marathon hearing | Facebook hit with class action lawsuit | Twitter endorses political ad disclosure bill | Uber buys bike share Overnight Cybersecurity: Zuckerberg faces grilling in marathon hearing | What we learned from Facebook chief | Dems press Ryan to help get Russia hacking records | Top Trump security adviser resigning MORE (D-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA Key senators warn Trump of North Korea effort on Syria Rep. Jordan: Action in Syria ‘should be debated in Congress’ MORE (R-Utah) have introduced a companion measure to the USA Liberty Act that would require government investigators to obtain a warrant before reviewing communications to or from Americans gathered under the program, in both criminal and national security cases, but it’s seen as having little chance of passage. 

Supporters of the Leahy-Lee legislation hope it might put pressure on lawmakers to include more privacy protections than currently written in the Intelligence Committee legislation.

House leadership has already signaled that a warrant requirement to search the database for a U.S. person is a nonstarter. 

Reps. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeRepublican lawmaker introduces new cyber deterrence bill Lawmakers question FBI director on encryption Loss of Ryan hits hard for House Republicans MORE (R-Texas) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenLawmakers question FBI director on encryption Dems say 20 'poison pills' stand in way of spending deal Democrats propose .7 billion in grants for election security MORE (D-Calif.) tried to introduce an amendment to Liberty that would have required a warrant at the point of query, but they were voted down 12-21.

“We have been assured in explicit terms that if we adopt this amendment today, leadership will not permit this bill to proceed to the House floor,” House Judiciary Committee ranking member John ConyersJohn James ConyersDem hoping to replace Conyers pushes Trump impeachment Did California's Ro Khanna get duped by Russia's propaganda? Met opera fires conductor after sexual misconduct probe MORE Jr. (D-Mich.), who crafted the USA Liberty Act with Goodlatte, said during the markup of the bill.

The act's supporters say they’re only mildly concerned that leadership will try to jam through merely Potemkin reforms, citing the resolve of those seeking more meaningful changes. In their letter to Ryan, Reps. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerLawmakers question FBI director on encryption Doug Collins to run for House Judiciary chair Lawmakers renew call for end to 'black budget' secrecy MORE (R-Wis.), Conyers, Poe and Lofgren insisted that a clean reauthorization of Section 702 would still not pass the House.

“All four of us agree on this point: we will work together to oppose any effort to reauthorize Section 702 that does not include meaningful reform.”

But the clock is ticking — raising the odds that the committee’s work will be swept aside in a year-end flurry of action on tax reform, potential immigration legislation and government funding bills. 

"The biggest concern for us is the time crunch," a House aide told The Hill.