House passes key surveillance bill with deadline looming

House passes key surveillance bill with deadline looming
© Greg Nash

The House on Wednesday passed legislation to reauthorize a key intelligence surveillance bill after weeks of back-and-forth tussling between members in both parties. 

The passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), 278-136, comes the day after the House struck a bipartisan deal on the legislation and just before the bill is set to expire on Sunday.

Negotiators had worked for weeks, as both liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans pushed for additional privacy protections, putting them at odds with lawmakers who wanted a clean reauthorization of the FISA bill, which they believed would easily pass in the upper chamber.


Now the Senate will consider the bill, which extends three expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act that touch on roving wiretaps, lone wolf surveillance and a controversial program that allows the U.S. government to request access to phone metadata.

The bill has the support of Attorney General William BarrBill BarrKellyanne Conway acknowledges Biden as apparent winner Trump Pentagon nominee alleged Biden 'coup': report Ex-FBI lawyer who falsified document in Trump-Russia probe seeks to avoid prison MORE, who encouraged members of both parties to vote yes on it on Wednesday. 

“I have reviewed the House FISA bill and support its passage,” Barr said in a statement. “The bill contains an array of new requirements and compliance provisions that will protect against abuse and misuse in the future while ensuring that this critical tool is available when appropriate to protect the safety of the American people.” 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse passes sweeping reform bill to decriminalize marijuana This week: Congress races to wrap work for the year Top Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanMcCarthy woos Freedom Caucus with eye on Speakership Cheney, top GOP lawmakers ask Trump campaign for proof of election fraud New RSC chairman sees 'Trumpism' as future MORE (Ohio), the top Republican on the panel, touted the bill Tuesday as a major accomplishment. 

“Since we first circulated the original draft of this bill, we have heard from a wide range of stakeholders from the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus to the staunchest supporters of President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE and they have convinced us to make additional changes to the bill,” Nadler said while presenting the bill before the House Rules Committee on Tuesday evening.

Both Nadler and Jordan described the amended bill as a step in the right direction, noting that there were more privacy protections they would like to make in the future.


“Contrary to a couple of hours ago, I actually agree with the Chairman. I think this bill doesn’t go far enough, but it does represent real reform,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) who spoke Tuesday before the Rules panel, after Nadler. 

Jordan and many other Republicans have called for FISA reform after a Justice Department (DOJ) watchdog found 17 “significant errors or omissions” in the surveillance warrant applications for former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, dating back to 2016. DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz has said his investigation did not find evidence to suggest political bias impacted the FBI’s decision to open the counterintelligence probe and concluded that the FBI had an “authorized purpose” for the inquiry.

Jordan dismissed the idea of a clean reauthorization bill, citing the Page wiretap and taking aim at the GOP leaders who supported the idea.

“I am [OK with the deal], but I'm like you, I wanted a lot more. But sometimes you got to step back. And look, what are we going to get with Democrats in control of the House?” asked Jordan during an interview with Ohio conservative talk radio host Bob Frantz on Wednesday. 

But some of the fiercest critics of U.S. surveillance powers were not pleased by the text of the bill.

The House Freedom Caucus took an official position against the measure just ahead of the vote, stating that “anything short of significant and substantive reforms would betray the trust of the American people.” 

And Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Senate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return MORE (R-Ky.) slammed the bill as “weak sauce.”

"The ‘Deal' on FISA is weak sauce diluted [and] made impotent by A.G. Barr. None of the reforms prevent secret FISA court from abusing the rights of Americans. None of the reforms prevent a President of either party from a politically motivated investigation. Big Disappointment!" Paul tweeted early Tuesday evening.

Paul and Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-Utah), who have both vocally called for sweeping reforms to FISA, are urging President Trump to veto the bill if it arrives at his desk.

Nevertheless, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have touted the bill’s latest privacy protections, including ending the NSA’s authority to collect detailed records on an ongoing basis, among other limitations on how long the government can retain certain records. 

In terms of surveillance, the bill requires the government to provide notice to individuals targeted in national security investigations whose information is collected and used in legal proceedings, while also giving those individuals the right to challenge the legality of such actions against them. 

The bill allows the surveillance courts to appoint an amicus curiae if a surveillance application raises concerns about a person’s First Amendment rights.

And it also includes language that requires officers overseeing FISA applications to certify that the Department of Justice has been briefed on all relevant information including exculpatory evidence. In addition, the bill also enhances the penalties if an individual misrepresents such information in an application.

Late last month, House Democrats had to pull the original bill in the Judiciary Committee and postpone a markup after Reps. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: Four major tech issues facing the Biden administration | Pressure grows to reinstate White House cyber czar | Facebook, Google to extend political ad bans House report says lawmakers could securely cast remote votes amid pandemic Why prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas MORE (Calif.) and Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Inequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE (Wash.) — two Democrats on the panel who have pushed for more privacy protections — sent the FISA reauthorization into a tailspin by threatening to force votes on several FISA-related amendments.

Leaders including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks Hillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE (D-Calif.), Intelligence Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE (D-Calif.) and Nadler scrambled over recent weeks to win the support of progressives, which eventually produced an agreement Tuesday.

The bill’s House passage punts the legislation over to the Senate, which has only a few days to debate over the bill before it must be sent to the president’s desk.