Surveillance fight pits Trump allies against each other
A burgeoning fight over whether to renew expiring intelligence programs is sparking a power struggle between some of President Trump’s biggest allies on Capitol Hill.
Congress has roughly 10 working days to come up with a deal to extend three expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 law that overhauled the nation’s surveillance programs.
Those talks — which were already expected to be fragile given the skepticism from progressives and libertarian-minded Republicans — have hit a political powder keg in the GOP, exposing deep divisions within the party.
On one side are Attorney General William Barr, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). The other consists of Trump confidants such as Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, said he hoped Congress could pass a “discrete package” that extended the programs while also acknowledging the intraparty disagreements that could make it a challenge.
“We have a number of our members who are very interested in using the opportunity that we have in front of us to sort of expand the discussion about some of the things that went wrong and some of the findings in the [inspector general] report that need to be addressed,” he said, referring to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report that found shortcomings in the application process for surveillance warrants.
Beyond the immediate debate about whether to extend, end or reform the sunsetting programs — which deal with roving wiretaps, lone wolf surveillance and a controversial phone records program — is a larger fight about using any reauthorization legislation to reform the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The shadowy court has emerged as a prime target for Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill after Horowitz’s report last year found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the warrant applications to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Horowitz’s findings have fueled calls from Republicans to use the USA Freedom bill to take a shot at larger FISA reforms over concerns about the potential for abuse within the surveillance court and warrant applications, even as Barr and McConnell back a “clean” extension of the intelligence programs.
“We’ve got to make sure that we do our job and we fix this law. It’s bad,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) told Fox News. “We should say this law has been used … by the president’s political enemies against the president before he became president and after. We shouldn’t allow this to continue.”
Collins, speaking before a crowd of Republican activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, said that “it’s got to be reformed.”
“We have to do something with FISA, and the House needs to do it, and the Senate needs to take it up, and we need to send it to the president so we know that this will not happen again,” he said, earning applause from the GOP audience.
Lawmakers who want to reform the FISA court are floating myriad potential changes, including increased legal representation for individuals targeted for surveillance and built-in penalties for government officials found to abuse the court process.
But those plans are at odds with a pitch made by Barr to do a straightforward extension of the three expiring surveillance programs.
Barr’s approach has been embraced by Senate GOP leaders, including McConnell, who have traditionally aligned with granting an administration surveillance authority.
“I personally happen to be among those who think that these expiring provisions are important, and I hope we will be able to find a bipartisan way to extend them,” McConnell told reporters during a weekly leadership press conference.
One option being floated by Senate Republicans would be to extend the expiring provisions of the law until 2022.
In the meantime, Barr told GOP senators that he would use his own rulemaking ability to make changes to the court and warrant application process that would line up with recommendations made by Horowitz.
Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is planning to use his gavel to do a deep dive on the FISA process, including the Page warrant application. That includes closed-door depositions in the coming days.
Graham added that the Senate could take up FISA-related legislation separate from the USA Freedom Act debate, but in the meantime, he wants to “find out what happened” with the Page application.
“You start at the bottom and work your way up, try to find out people who were in charge of the investigation day to day,” he added.
But it’s unclear if that will be enough to win over other Republicans and Trump.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) argued that the administration was asking for a “blank check” despite unanswered questions about the surveillance of Page.
“I appreciate the fact that some have offered to fix it internally and administratively, and that’s certainly better than nothing … but if you don’t think we need to fix it, all you’ve got to do is just spend a few minutes going through the Horowitz report,” he said. “We need to fix this now.”
Kennedy added that he could support a short-term extension to give lawmakers more time to get a deal on broader FISA reforms.
Paul told reporters that Trump supports his amendment to block the FISA warrants from being used against Americans and to block FISA court information from being used against U.S. citizens in domestic courts.
Trump has largely stayed on the sidelines of the surveillance debate, though he’s talked privately with lawmakers, including Paul and Lee, about making broader FISA reforms.
He also retweeted Jordan’s call for FISA reforms, including a 1 a.m. blast that “they spied on my campaign!”
Those tweets did not go unnoticed on Capitol Hill, where Trump is viewed the wild card in the surveillance debate.
“I saw some of those tweets. I think the president’s concerns are going to be addressed by in large in the hearings and the work we’re going to do in the Judiciary Committee,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“None of the authorities … that are expiring really relate to that,” Cornyn added. “I trust the attorney general to speak plainly to the president and explain that to him.”
Alexander Bolton contributed.