House Judiciary chair hopeful eyes surveillance reform

House Judiciary chair hopeful eyes surveillance reform
© Greg Nash

House Judiciary chairman hopeful Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings Hillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Graham huddles with House Republicans on impeachment strategy MORE (R-Ga.), who publicly announced his bid for the gavel this month, sees potential surveillance reform as one of the issues that the panel might focus on under his leadership.

Citing allegations raised in a controversial memo authored by staff for House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald Nunes10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable A Republican Watergate veteran's perspective on a Trump impeachment Meet the lawyer at center of whistleblower case: 'It is an everyday adventure' MORE (R-Calif.), Collins said he sees a need for the Judiciary panel to examine the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) process.

“I think that brought out in the memo, some of the discussions that need to be had — checks and balances of that court. Is it actually doing what it should be doing from a presentation standpoint? This is where hearings and investigation will kick in,” Collins said in a recent interview with The Hill.

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The memo, which was trumpeted by conservatives as a bombshell on its release in early February but has largely faded from the public view since, has fueled claims by some Republicans of bias on the part of federal investigators directed at President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE.

It alleged that senior FBI and Justice Department officials inappropriately used a piece of opposition research to obtain a surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Among the allegations in the three-and-a-half page document was a claim that the Justice Department did not adequately represent to the FISC — the clandestine court that reviews such warrant requests — that the opposition research had been paid for in part by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFarrow: Clinton staff raised concerns over Weinstein reporting Perry says Trump directed him to discuss Ukraine with Giuliani: report The Memo: Once the front-runner, Biden now vulnerable MORE's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who have read the underlying surveillance application say the department told the court that the information came from a political opponent of then-candidate Trump, but did not specify that the opponent was Clinton.

“We have primary jurisdiction and that would be something I would definitely see at least [having] hearings and look into from a classified setting, and say, are we doing everything we need to do or does there need to be some changes?” Collins said.

The Judiciary chairman hopeful also indicated that unmasking — the procedure by which senior policymakers can request that the identity of U.S. persons in intelligence reports be revealed — is “definitely something we would be looking at.”

Republicans have long speculated that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught up in surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and inappropriately unmasked by Obama administration officials.

Democrats have described both the Nunes memo and the unmasking controversy as politically manufactured scandals aimed at muddying the waters around special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network MORE's investigation into Trump campaign associates' ties to Russia.

The congressional landscape for surveillance issues could be dramatically different next year. The makeup of the Judiciary Committee is poised to undergo major changes, with a host of senior members including Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.) retiring.

The committee has historically wrangled over surveillance issues, including potential reform efforts, thanks to its coalition of libertarian-leaning members and privacy-minded Democrats.

“Interesting is your word, paralyzing is another word,” retiring committee member Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyElijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate The Hill's Morning Report — Arrest of Giuliani associates triggers many questions MORE (R-S.C.) told The Hill, referring to the difficulty of shepherding surveillance legislation through the at-times fractious panel.

In January, when renewing one part of the law that governs foreign surveillance, lawmakers rejected a push from privacy advocates for changes that critics say are necessary to ensure Fourth Amendment protections for people swept up in surveillance.

Although it was eventually defeated, the campaign for privacy changes appeared to gain momentum through the fall, with Goodlatte acknowledging that a clean reauthorization of the provision was a nonstarter in the House. The final bill included some modest reforms.

Trump himself has zeroed in on the broader law. Shortly before the January vote, Trump tweeted that that the act “may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?”

He later walked back the tweet, which ran counter to the position his administration had taken on the bill.

Gowdy, who sits on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, nodded at another layer of difficulty Collins would face in examining surveillance issues as head of Judiciary: The Intelligence panel also lays claim to jurisdiction over FISA.

“Doug is a fantastic guy who gets along with everybody but [Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials Democrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate MORE (R-Wis.)] is going to require a level of consensus by the two committees before something is going to happen — and then that doesn’t even include Burr,” Gowdy said, referring to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrEx-CIA agent: Whistleblower's complaint 'should be considered on its merits' Senate Intel chair: Whistleblower hasn't agreed to testify before panel Juan Williams: Trump, the conspiracy theory president MORE (R-N.C.).

“When you go in as a committee chairman, you are full of all these good ideas — and then reality hits,” continued Gowdy, who also chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “You don’t even have the votes for adjournment.”

And if Democrats retake the House in November, the agenda of the Judiciary panel could change dramatically.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) would take the gavel and although he has called for caution, he will be under pressure from liberal Democrats to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump. 

Collins, a well-liked member of House GOP leadership, is far less senior than several of his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee who are also eyeing the job, including Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotConsequential GOP class of 1994 all but disappears Judiciary approves new investigative powers with eyes on impeachment Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea MORE (R-Ohio), who currently chairs the House Small Business Committee.

Chabot is also in a strong position to seek the House Foreign Affairs Committee gavel, another panel he says he’s interested in leading.