House votes against curtailing warrantless collection of Americans' data

House votes against curtailing warrantless collection of Americans' data
© Greg Nash

The House on Tuesday rejected an amendment that would have limited the government's ability to collect Americans' personal communications without a warrant.

The House voted 175-253 against the amendment introduced by Reps. Justin AmashJustin AmashWhat are Republicans going to do after Donald Trump leaves office? Trump allies assail impeachment on process while House Democrats promise open hearings soon Hoyer: We are going to move as fast 'as the facts and truth dictate' on open hearings MORE (R-Mich.) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties | FCC formally approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill | AT&T in M settlement with FTC Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill to regulate top social media platforms Bipartisan group reveals agricultural worker immigration bill MORE (D-Calif.) amid opposition from national security hawks. 

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Amash and Lofgren tried to pass the measure as part of an appropriations bill that funds several federal departments, including the Labor Department, Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense.

The amendment would have curtailed a controversial law that allows the U.S. government to collect communications from foreigners located outside of the U.S. without a warrant.

Pro-privacy lawmakers like Amash and Lofgren have long argued that one of the law's provisions — Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — allows the government to collect data on Americans who are communicating with non-U.S. citizens outside of the country without a warrant. Their one-page amendment would have barred the government from collecting communications under FISA on Americans without a warrant. 

Digital rights group Fight for the Future in a statement after the vote pointed out that more Democrats had voted against the amendment than Republicans.

"It’s good to know that House Democrats like Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump on Schiff: 'He will not make the LSU football team' Trump knocks testimony from 'Never Trumpers' at Louisiana rally Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE are 'resisting' Trump by voting to ensure that he has limitless authority to conduct mass warrantless surveillance,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement. "The Democrats who voted against this common sense amendment just threw immigrants, LGBTQ folks, activists, journalists, and political dissidents under the bus by voting to rubberstamp the Trump administration’s Orwellian domestic spying capabilities." 

Congress last year reauthorized Section 702 of FISA with few alterations after a bitter battle between privacy activists and security hawks in both chambers.

Lofgren and Amash's amendment attracted enormous support from civil liberties activists throughout Tuesday, after Amash announced the House would be voting on the measure. 

"We just got handed a potentially historic opportunity to finally finally close the gaping loopholes in Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act that the NSA [National Security Agency] abuses to conduct warrantless dragnet surveillance of our Internet activity, email, text messages, etc," Fight for the Future wrote in a blog post. 

Forty-two civil society groups signed onto an impromptu letter in support of the Amash-Lofgren amendment, writing it would "significantly advance the privacy rights of people within the Unties States."

"We represent a cross-partisan coalition of civil liberties, transparency and government oversight organizations committed to reining in the warrantless surveillance of people in the United States," wrote the groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Arab American Institute and digital civil rights group Color of Change. 

In April 2019, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said U.S. intelligence agencies conducted 9,637 queries for search terms concerning a U.S. person in 2018. 

Amash on the House floor earlier on Tuesday said Republican and Democrats' resistance to reforming Section 702 exemplifies "what’s wrong with Washington." 

"The government can search and sweep in billions of communications, including communications of Americans, and then query that data," Amash said. "The Amash-Lofgren amendment puts in basic safeguards to allow the government to continue using Section 702 for its stated purpose of gathering foreign intelligence, while limiting the government’s warrantless collection of Americans’ communications under FISA." 

Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) in a rebuttal on the floor said the amendment would have made "it more difficult for the NSA to target foreign nationals if the intended target is in communication with someone in the United States." 

"I would point out … that this is an appropriations bill, this is not an authorization bill," Visclosky said. "The amendment is a serious change in policy and deserves more than 10 minutes of debate in this chamber."