National Security

House set to vote on controversial surveillance bill

The House is preparing to hold a stand-alone vote on a bill renewing a controversial surveillance authority that the intelligence community says is critical to identifying and disrupting terror plots.

The chamber is poised to vote on a modified measure from the House Intelligence Committee that imposes few new privacy controls on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless surveillance program.


The bill passed out of committee along party lines — but a manager’s amendment filed by chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) removes the provision of the bill that sparked Democratic opposition to it in committee.

That section had sought to place additional restrictions on government officials who want to know the names of U.S. persons caught up in foreign surveillance — a political hot-button issue known as unmasking.

The legislation will renew the program until 2025 — falling short of the clean, permanent reauthorization sought by the administration.

It also codifies a ban on so-called “about” collection — limiting the government to collecting communications to or from a target of surveillance and excluding collection that merely references to a target.

The NSA voluntarily halted about collection earlier this year for operational reasons but wants to maintain the ability to turn it back on in the future. 

Under the new legislation, the agency can restart about collection — with a 30 day notice to Congress and as long as Congress doesn’t step in.

Both chambers have been struggling to reach a consensus on renewing the authority, known as Section 702, before it expires Dec. 31, and it’s unclear whether this measure will pass the House.

The Judiciary Committee had also advanced its own proposal to renew the authority that included more extensive privacy reforms.

And the House Freedom Caucus, which even opposed the more reform-minded Judiciary proposal on privacy grounds, is in outright opposition.

But the bill includes language from the intel panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who may be able to rally enough support from his colleagues to outweigh that opposition.

Equally unclear is the fate of renewal in the Senate, where Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has suggested lawmakers will try to insert a short-term renewal into a stopgap spending measure, effectively punting the issue at least into the new year.

It’s unclear what leaders mean by “short term.”

At issue is whether federal investigators should be forced to obtain a warrant before viewing or using information on Americans’ that is incidentally collected under the program.

The current law allows the NSA to collect text messages and emails of foreigners abroad without an individualized warrant — even when the subjects communicate with Americans in the U.S.

Federal investigators can then search those communications — again without a warrant — in what critics say is a violation of Americans’ Fourth Amendment protections.

The Intelligence Committee bill would allow federal investigators to query the database for Americans’ information — but require them to obtain a court order if they want to make use of the results in court in everyday criminal cases.

It marks a carefully crafted but extremely narrow compromise between what the FBI wants — a clean renewal of the current law with no new limits — and what privacy advocates want — a warrant to search the surveillance database for Americans in the first place.

The Judiciary Committee bill requires criminal investigators to obtain a warrant to view Americans’ information in the clandestine database but not to search the database.

Tags Adam Schiff Devin Nunes John Cornyn

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