Digital rights activists raise money for billboard criticizing Schiff over surveillance fight

Bonnie Cash

Digital rights activists are fundraising for a billboard criticizing House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) over his efforts to reauthorize a surveillance bill that they say does not go far enough in reforming how the government is allowed to spy on everyday Americans.

The two groups, Fight for the Future and Demand Progress, on Tuesday launched a crowdfunding page to raise money for the billboard, which would go up in Schiff’s California district.

It’s only the latest effort by progressive and civil libertarian activists to target Schiff and other national security-minded Democrats over their support for a bill that they say would only mildly reform a trio of government surveillance authorities set to expire by March 15.

“Just a few weeks ago, Adam Schiff stood before Congress and told all of America that Donald Trump abused the power of the presidency for his personal political gain,” Dayton Young, a director with Fight for the Future, said in a statement, referring to Schiff’s role as one of the leading House managers in impeaching President Trump.

“So why does he now want to reauthorize this dangerous legislation that grants the president more powers to abuse?” Young said. “And why is he fighting other Democratic lawmakers pressing for reform? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Among other provisions, the bill would officially revoke the government’s authority to collect phone records from millions of Americans, a program first disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 that was later shuttered amid technical difficulties and questions of effectiveness. 

But privacy-minded stakeholders and lawmakers have said the bill, negotiated by Schiff and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), did not go far enough in paring down the government’s spying capabilities.

Schiff was hailed by a number of Democrats as a hero as he helped lead the House’s efforts to charge Trump with abusing his office’s power and obstructing Congress last December. But now the House intel chairman has found himself locked in a fierce fight with some of the same progressives that cheered him on during impeachment — and most importantly, he is battling Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who was a fellow impeachment manager and is now a leading lawmaker pressing for serious reforms to the surveillance authorities.

Lofgren, a senior member on the House Judiciary Committee, threw plans to reauthorize some intelligence provisions in the USA Freedom Act into a tailspin last week after she threatened to hold votes on several privacy-friendly amendments.

Nadler pulled the bill from a markup over her amendments, which Democratic aides described as a “poison pill” that would kill the bill on the House floor.

Nadler negotiated the bill, which had some surveillance reforms but did not go as far as groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wanted, for months with Schiff, and outside stakeholders have blamed Schiff for torpedoing the effort, claiming Nadler was open to more significant reforms but faced opposition from Schiff.

A House Intelligence Committee official denied that Schiff was involved in pulling the bill at all.

Lofgren’s amendments, which she reduced from seven to five after negotiations with House Judiciary and Intelligence committee staff, would add an outside advocate for every Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) case in which an American is targeted and make it illegal for the government to collect a U.S. citizen’s geolocation data and web browsing history.

Lofgren’s proposals had life in the current political climate, in which there is bipartisan interest in reforming FISA following a government watchdog’s assessment last year that found 17 “significant errors and omissions” by law enforcement officials in their efforts to obtain a wiretap on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. 

Congressional efforts to reform or reauthorize expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 bill that stemmed from Snowden’s revelations, have remained in limbo for several weeks as the sunset date gets closer.

A group of House members on Monday urged their colleagues to ensure the reforms are not attached to other bills, and Fight for the Future is pressing Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the House Rules Committee chairman, to ensure any surveillance reform bill gets a “clean” vote that allows members to offer amendments.

The fight is further complicated in the Senate, where GOP senators are split over what they want to do with the expiring provisions.

Trump is a wild card in the fight — even after Attorney General William Barr told senators recently that the Trump administration wants a total reauthorization without reforms, Trump has raised the possibility that he would support some libertarian-minded reforms, potentially making for strange bedfellows in a contentious battle that typically pits privacy hawks against national security types.

Some Democratic aides have raised the possibility that Congress could simply allow the authorities to lapse on March 15 and let Congress continue to fight over how to proceed. And senators have said they might simply extend the authorities. But so far, the path forward remains unclear. 

Tags Adam Schiff Demand Progress Domestic surveillance Donald Trump Fight for the Future FISA Intelligence Jerrold Nadler Jerry Nadler USA Freedom Act William Barr Zoe Lofgren

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