Dozens of lawmakers call for government surveillance reforms

Dozens of lawmakers call for government surveillance reforms
© Greg Nash

Dozens of progressive and libertarian-leaning lawmakers on Wednesday threw their support behind significantly revising a set of government surveillance authorities that are set to expire within months. 

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and conservative House Freedom Caucus signed onto a letter calling for "meaningful, bipartisan surveillance reform" just as Congress voted to extend those controversial provisions for another three months.

At the last minute, lawmakers tucked the 90-day surveillance authority extension into the temporary government funding measure, which passed the House 231-192 on Tuesday. The continuing resolution (CR), which allowed Congress to avoid an immediate government shutdown, gave key committees three more months to debate what they want to do about the set of controversial surveillance authorities.  

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The House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee have jurisdiction over the USA Freedom Act, the bill that is set to expire, which allows the government to comb through phone records on millions of Americans and track targets during terrorism investigations. 

“It’s unfortunate that we still have no agreement on critical privacy and civil liberties provisions that must be included in any final reauthorization of the USA Freedom Act," Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Virginia moves to suspend Medicaid work rules | Powerful House panel sets 'Medicare for All' hearing | Hospitals sue over Trump price rule | FDA official grilled on vaping policy Jayapal pushes back on Gaetz's questioning of impeachment witness donations to Democrats Judiciary Democrat fearful Republicans will treat impeachment hearing like 'game' MORE (D-Wash.) said in a statement on Wednesday. "I’ve been deeply engaged with my Judiciary and Intelligence colleagues to make significant changes to any reauthorization bill—we’re making good progress and hope to complete our work before this 90-day extension period ends." 

Jayapal said the short-term extension was necessary because without it, the Senate might have pushed a "full reauthorization through with no changes" ahead of the original Dec. 15 expiration date. Now, the provisions likely won't expire until March 15. 

"Our goal now is to ensure the final reauthorization contains our critical limits and protections on surveillance and privacy," Jayapal said.

In the letter sent to the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Tuesday, a group of 49 lawmakers called for significant reforms. They asked for a total repeal of the call detail records program, which allows the government to access phone records on millions of Americans every year during terrorism investigations, and strict restrictions on surveillance "that threatens First Amendment protected activities." 

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The lawmakers are asking to "prevent large-scale collection" of information on U.S. citizens and impose "strict limits" around how the government is allowed to use information obtained during criminal investigations. 

"Disclosures over the past several years make clear that existing expansive surveillance powers pose an unacceptable threat to civil rights and civil liberties," the letter reads. "These laws contain numerous loopholes that can be exploited to improperly surveil people based on speech, race, religion, and other impermissible factors." 

"Members should be given the opportunity to consider and vote on surveillance reform legislation as a standalone measure in the House, and not tucked into an expansive omnibus or budget bill," they wrote.

One of the expiring provisions, known as Section 215, is particularly contentious because it enables the phone records program, which was originally disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. That program was pared down by the USA Freedom Act in 2015, and the National Security Agency (NSA) disclosed this year that it shuttered the effort entirely amid insurmountable technical difficulties.

Bipartisan lawmakers in both chambers have questioned whether to extend the NSA's ability to reopen that program at any point, as the Trump administration has requested. 

Under the CR, the provisions are set to expire on March 15 rather than next month.