National Security

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 Barr, 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 Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (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 Trump 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 Paul (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 Lee (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 Lofgren (Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (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 Pelosi (D-Calif.), Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (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.

Tags Adam Schiff Donald Trump FISA Fisa Court Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Jerrold Nadler Jim Jordan Mike Lee Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Rand Paul William Barr Zoe Lofgren
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