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 BarrTrump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent Trump administration awarding M in housing grants to human trafficking survivors Trump stokes conspiracy about Epstein death, stands by wishes for Ghislaine Maxwell 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 GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus New polls show tight races for Graham, McConnell Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing 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 CornynSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Republicans uncomfortably playing defense Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts 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 BurrSenate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag Hillicon Valley: Google extending remote work policy through July 2021 | Intel community returns final Russia report to Senate committee after declassification | Study finds election officials vulnerable to cyberattacks Intel community returns final Russia report volume to Senate after declassification review MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns Senate Intel panel approves final Russia report, moves toward public release 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 CoatsTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet America's divide widens: Ignore it no longer Trump gives Grenell his Cabinet chair after he steps down 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 LeeOvernight Defense: Air Force general officially becomes first African American service chief | Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure | State Department's special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure Trump signs major conservation bill into law 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 McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day 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 PaulTrump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus 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 JohnsonGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions Tensions flare as GOP's Biden probe ramps up  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 BluntSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal GOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal House Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections 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.”