Trump, privacy hawks upend surveillance brawl
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are playing hardball as they try to torpedo a House-passed surveillance deal.
The two GOP senators, and their allies on both sides of the aisle, have already netted one victory: They will have successfully forced a days-long expiration of three surveillance programs, including the controversial Section 215, when the intelligence authorities lapse Sunday night.
Now, they are trying to get President Trump to upend the fight over the House bill — which ties a reauthorization of the three expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 law that overhauled the country’s intelligence programs, with some changes to a shadowy surveillance court.
“The House bill, with no amendments, is completely unacceptable, an affront to any of us who were ever concerned about FISA abuse,” Paul said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA, Court.
Lee, meanwhile, delivered a lengthy speech, where he railed against the House measure, invoking the president’s concerns.
“He still has concerns with FISA and that many senators are pointing out the flaws in the reforms package,” Lee said. “If the president of the United States himself has reason to be concerned about FISA, what about the rest of Americans?”
The House passed its bill on Wednesday in a 278-136 vote. In addition to leadership on both sides of the aisle, Trump allies like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) supported the legislation.
The measure would provide an extension of two USA Freedom Act provisions related to “roving” wiretaps, allowing law enforcement to follow an individual across devices, and lone wolf terrorists — people who might be inspired by, but not directly linked to, a terrorist organization.
The bill would end a controversial call records program but reforms and reauthorizes other parts of Section 215, which allows the government to request “tangible things” relevant to a national security investigation.
But opponents argue it does not go far enough to reform the FISA Court.
Because negotiations over the legislation went down to the wire, with the House not passing its measure until Wednesday, Paul and Lee were able to throw up procedural roadblocks to the Senate voting on it before Sunday’s deadline.
They offered to support a 45-day short-term extension if it was paired with a deal on guaranteed amendment votes to the House bill. Republicans, however, shot down that request, signaling they want to pass the House bill as is.
The move by Paul and Lee rankled their GOP colleagues and came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took a veiled shot at them when he warned that forcing a lapse to “make a political point which will not change the result.”
“I am confident this will pass the Senate as well. It is not a question of if this passes, but when,” McConnell said.
Other Senate Republicans were more direct, warning that if there were a terrorist attack before the intelligence programs were reauthorized, Paul and Lee would be to blame.
“I hope we don’t have an attack this weekend,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said the House bill was the only thing that could pass before the Sunday deadline.
“If we don’t do it now, it won’t get done until we get back,” he warned.
The situation mirrors a 2015 fight when privacy hawks were able to force a 36-hour lapse of then-Patriot Act provisions because McConnell brought the bill to the floor too close to the deadline to avoid needing the cooperation of every senator, something opponents weren’t willing to give him.
Ultimately, the Senate that year passed the USA Freedom Act, which Paul opposed and Lee voted for, reauthorizing the programs with reforms.
The Senate will take an initial procedural vote on the House-passed bill Monday evening. GOP leaders have signaled they believe the measure will pass once it’s on the floor.
To win this time around, Lee and Paul will need help from Trump, who they are publicly urging to oppose the bill.
Trump has railed against the surveillance court, saying his 2016 campaign was “spied” on.
Progressives and libertarian-minded GOP warned for years that the surveillance court did not provide enough transparency or privacy protections for those targeted.
Republicans, meanwhile, have become increasingly skeptical of the surveillance court after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found 17 significant inaccuracies and omissions in the warrant applications targeting Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Trump has largely stayed mum on the surveillance fight. But in a tweet that did not go unnoticed on Capitol Hill, he acknowledged that some Republicans are pushing him to oppose the bill.
“Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted “coup” of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” he tweeted.
A White House official told The Hill that the president is interested in significant FISA reforms but is “carefully listening” to views of all Republicans.
Trump told Lee during a conversation that he opposed the House bill, a spokesman for Lee said. Paul has also been in touch with the White House.
If Trump opposes the bill, that would put him at odds with his own attorney general. William Barr released a statement saying he supported the bill.
“I know there’s a lot of noise about it, but I hope he follows the advice of his own attorney general and signs it,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the president’s tweet.
Asked if Trump would buck his own attorney general, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, told reporters as the elevator doors closed: “I don’t think so.”