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Congress eyes killing controversial surveillance program

Congress eyes killing controversial surveillance program
© Greg Nash

Momentum is growing in Congress to reject the Trump administration’s request to reauthorize a controversial surveillance program.

Lawmakers have until March 15 to reauthorize expiring provisions under the USA Freedom Act, including a controversial phone records program known as Section 215.

The program, initially made public through leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden, allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect metadata on incoming and outgoing calls from a specific number, though it does not allow the NSA to look at the content of the calls.

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Attorney General William BarrBill BarrThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Judge's decision on Barr memo puts spotlight on secretive DOJ office Trump allies launching nonprofit focused on voter fraud MORE met with Senate Republicans on Tuesday to discuss the law and make the case for a blanket extension. But key chairmen in the House and Senate do not support reauthorizing the call records program, arguing it has been subsequently been made inoperable.

“That would be a tough sell if you don’t use it,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse to advance appropriations bills in June, July The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  The Memo: The GOP's war is already over — Trump won MORE (R-S.C.).

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Section 215 had cost $100 million between 2015 and 2019 but only in two instances provided information the FBI didn’t already have. That resulted in one investigation. 

This raises the odds that Congress could formally revoke authorization for the call records program while greenlighting an extension of other parts of the surveillance law set to expire.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Cornyn is most prolific tweeter in Congress so far in 2021 Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel MORE (Texas), a member of GOP leadership and the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted that the “experts” within the intelligence community support ending the call records program.

“I don’t believe that the experts find that call record reauthorization particularly helpful. So I could support reauthorizing the other parts … and not reauthorize that,” he said.

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Cornyn added that he understands Barr and other administration officials want to keep the authority for the program but “I think they can come back to Congress when and if they come up with a better technology solution, and we could consider reauthorizing it then, not now.”

Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrFDA unveils plan to ban menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars The Hill's Morning Report - Biden to country: 'Turning peril into possibility' Budd to run for Senate in NC MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFacebook board decision on Trump ban pleases no one Schumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands Senate Intel vows to 'get to the bottom' of 'Havana syndrome' attacks MORE (D-Va.) — the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, respectively — have filed legislation that would formally end the call records program while providing an eight-year extension for its other provisions.

Meanwhile, House Democrats on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees unveiled legislation this week that would repeal the NSA’s authority to run the program. That bill is scheduled to get a vote in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The NSA shuttered the program, arguing that the changes made by the USA Freedom Act, which Congress passed in 2015, made the call records program unworkable. The law changed the bulk collection of metadata by requiring the government to specify an individual or account, a step that narrows the swath of data collected.

Despite this, then-acting Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsExperts see 'unprecedented' increase in hackers targeting electric grid Intel heads to resume worldwide threats hearing scrapped under Trump Lack of cyber funds in Biden infrastructure plan raises eyebrows MORE last year formally asked Congress to reauthorize Section 215, along with the other provisions, arguing that the intelligence community should retain the authority to restart the program down the road.

Barr, according to GOP senators, urged lawmakers during the private meeting on Tuesday to pass a “clean” reauthorization of all three provisions. Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeRepublicans urge probe into Amazon government cloud-computing bid: report Allowing a racist slur against Tim Scott to trend confirms social media's activist bias Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill MORE (R-Utah) said in a tweet that he “made a long case against a simple reauthorization” during the closed-door lunch.

But Barr appears to have the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' McConnell alma mater criticizes him for 1619 comments McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' MORE (R-Ky.), who told reporters on Tuesday that he supports extending the surveillance powers.

“They’re still relevant to our effort to go after terrorists today. ... These tools have been overwhelmingly useful according to our intelligence advisors, and I hope that when the Senate deals with these expiring provisions in a couple of weeks we’ll be able to continue to have them in law,” McConnell told reporters.

McConnell’s support for extending all three parts of the law, however, does not mean the Senate will do so.

The GOP leader did not support the USA Freedom Act in 2015, instead trying to get the Senate to make a blanket reauthorization of the post-9/11 Patriot Act language. But the GOP leader ran into a roadblock as libertarian-minded senators, including Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Sherrod Brown calls Rand Paul 'kind of a lunatic' for not wearing mask Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna MORE (R-Ky.), blocked McConnell’s efforts to force through a short-term extension of the Patriot Act provisions.

In the end, the surveillance reform bill passed the Senate with nearly 20 Republican senators supporting it.

Senators stressed that the path forward on the surveillance reauthorization is fluid. Graham has not said if he will give the Burr-Warner bill a vote in committee before the March 15 deadline, saying he needs to discuss the path forward with McConnell.

“We’ve got about 63.7 moving parts and they will eventually come together,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) “But there’s no way to predict what’s going to happen.”

Lawmakers have 14 working days to get a reauthorization through a divided government, raising the prospect that Congress could need to pass a blanket short-term extension of the surveillance programs, delaying the ending of the call records program until later this year.

“Clock’s ticking,” Warner said, asked if there was enough time to get it done by the March 15 deadline. “I would like to get this in the rearview mirror. ... My hope is it will be sooner than later.”

Some House Republicans, angered over the use of warrants to surveil a former Trump campaign associate, have discussed trying to include changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court warrant application process as part of the surveillance debate.

Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the applications to monitor Trump campaign associate Carter Page, taking particular issue with applications to renew the FISA warrant and chastising the FBI for a lack of satisfactory explanations for those mistakes.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonOvernight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna Vaccine hesitancy among lawmakers slows return to normalcy on Capitol Hill FBI was aware Giuliani was a target of a Russian influence campaign ahead of 2020 election: report MORE (R-Wis.) noted that Horowitz’s report had raised skepticism for him about the larger FISA process, and floated a short-term extension of the surveillance powers so that Congress could fold in a deal on broader FISA changes into the USA Freedom reauthorization.

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“Maybe what we need to do is a short-term reauthorization while we kind of think this whole process through,” Johnson said. “Somebody who has been very supportive of these authorities. When I’m questioning it, that kind of says something.” 

Barr told Republicans during the closed-door caucus lunch that he was planning to use his regulatory powers to make changes to the FISA process, potentially alleviating the need to inject the fight over the Page warrant application into the legislation on the surveillance programs.

“My view of that would be there’s nothing wrong with the law if people tell the truth as it relates to Carter Page,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntRepublicans embrace Trump in effort to reclaim Senate GOP attorneys general group in turmoil after Jan. 6 Trump rally Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban MORE (R-Mo.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is gearing up for an in-depth probe into the FISA warrant application process and the investigation into 2016 Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign.

“Sen. Graham has a very careful schedule laid out,” Cornyn said. “We shouldn’t try to do that by March the 15th.”