National Security

Democrats cancel surveillance vote over pushback to amendments

Greg Nash

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday canceled a planned vote to reauthorize a set of controversial government surveillance programs over concerns that a slew of privacy-focused amendments from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) would tank the bill in the House, sources confirmed to The Hill. 

The eleventh-hour switch-up comes after staff with the Judiciary Committee negotiated with the House Intelligence Committee for months to produce a bill that reformed several expiring surveillance provisions originally spelled out in the Patriot Act. The provisions are set to sunset on March 15.

Ultimately, the reforms in the reauthorization bill offered by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) did not go far enough to satisfy key civil liberties advocates and privacy hawks in Congress, who were hoping for more sweeping changes to the government’s spying authorities. 

Lofgren, a longtime proponent of overhauling the country’s intelligence-gathering efforts to better protect privacy, told the Judiciary Committee staff on Tuesday that she would offer amendments to reform the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which has faced bipartisan scrutiny over its role in the FBI’s surveillance of a Trump campaign associate.  

Lofgren originally planned to introduce seven amendments but cut them down to five after negotiations, a Democratic aide told The Hill.

Multiple civil liberties groups were expected to support the bill only after Lofgren’s amendments. 

But another Democratic aide called the amendments a “poison pill” that could undermine months of tenuous negotiations between the Judiciary and Intelligence committees and ultimately kill the bill’s ability to get through the House. 

An Intelligence Committee official said the two panels have “worked collaboratively with each other and outside stakeholders to reauthorize necessary FISA provisions that are crucial to national security and make significant reforms to enhance civil liberties and privacy protections.” 

“The draft bill does both, implementing a variety of progressive reforms while ensuring we can continue to protect our national security,” the official said. “We’re going to continue to work with all parties towards that goal.” 

It’s unclear what will happen to the bill next, but the clock is ticking toward next month’s deadline.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has previously called for significant reforms to the USA Freedom Act, told The Hill on Wednesday that she’s continuing to work with the committee leaders to encourage them to include more privacy reforms in the bill. 

“We have been trying to get a set of reforms in and trying to get to that place where we can have these tools for the intelligence community but also have some very strong protections,” said Jayapal, who was planning to vote for Lofgren’s amendments.  

Nadler and Schiff’s bill would have extended all of the expiring counterintelligence investigation powers until 2023. But it also would have ended the government’s authority to gain information about Americans’ phone calls, which was enabled under a provision called Section 215. 

Section 215 enables the government to collect business records without a warrant and surveil targets across multiple communications devices during terrorism investigations.

The National Security Agency shuttered the phone records program, but the Trump administration is pushing for Congress to reauthorize its ability to reopen it at any point. 

Olivia Beavers contributed.

Tags Adam Schiff Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Jerrold Nadler Mass surveillance National security Patriot Act Pramila Jayapal USA Freedom Act Zoe Lofgren
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