House Passes Surveillance Law Revamp Without Warrant Requirement Privacy Advocates Wanted

After a week of wrangling, the bill will go to the Senate with a shorter renewal period than originally sought.

The House on Friday passed a bill to renew a controversial anti-terror foreign spying program over the objections of pro-privacy and civil liberties advocates.

The bill to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 9/11-era provision allowing U.S. agencies to keep track of foreigners abroad but that had been used to spy on Americans in the past, is on track to go to the Senate after the 273 to 147 vote.

The fight over renewing Section 702 created an uncommon alliance between the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative and libertarian Republican House members, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, composed of liberal House Democrats, to demand more safeguards against spying on American citizens.

That split showed up in the vote total. The final tally on the bill was unusually bipartisan, with 147 Democrats teaming up with 126 Republicans in favor, compared to 88 Republicans and 59 Democrats against it.

“America lost a lot of liberty today. The House version of FISA that passed today is worse than the status quo for American citizens,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) in a social media post after the vote.

“The core issue here is that the intel community put out a lot of information that wasn’t even correct that we had to keep countering,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “But I’m proud of our members on both sides of the aisle that made it clear that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

That coalition was opposed by a similarly bipartisan group of lawmakers worried the proposed changes would hamper the effectiveness of the provision, especially in the wake of a potentially revived ISIS terror group and other global dangers.

“The FISA reauthorization passed today is a strong, bipartisan bill to reform and reauthorize our most important foreign intelligence collection tool. I hope the Senate will move quickly to ensure we have no lapse in this critical authority,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

While the bill’s passage was a victory for the White House, and for House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) who saw an initial attempt to get the bill on the floor fail Wednesday, it came with a cost. Instead of a five-year reauthorization, the bill has only a two-year one.

But pro-Section 702 forces won a major victory as they successfully fought off an amendment that would have required the government to get a warrant to search the materials of Americans whose communications with foreigners were swept up in the spying. The amendment lost on a dramatic 212-212 tie vote, failing to get the majority required to be adopted.

Winning that amendment vote was crucial to the bill’s opponents.

“We can keep our country safe while simultaneously protecting Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights to privacy, but this version of the FISA reauthorization doesn’t get that balance right. In San Diego, [Asian American/Pacific Islander] and Middle Eastern communities are routinely wrapped up in FISA’s collections of communications just for talking with their family members abroad,” said Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.).

“I feel like we’re living in Bizarro world. We had more Republicans than Democrats by a pretty good margin vote for civil liberties, vote for Fourth Amendment protections,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). In the tie vote, 128 Republicans joined 84 Democrats in favor of the warrant requirement.

House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said the amendment would have made it harder to search data obtained from terror organizations like Hamas or Hezbollah.

“This is dangerous. It will make us go blind,” he said on the House floor.

While it passed the House, the bill may take an extra day or two to get to the Senate. After the bill passed, supporters of the amendment asked for its reconsideration, basically a vote on whether to re-vote on the bill’s passage. That would be held next week but is unlikely to do much other than the delay the bill’s arrival in the Senate.

That could still be significant, though, as the Senate may be tied up with disposing of the House impeachment charges against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and April 19 is the final day of the current law’s authorization.

The Democratic-held Senate may be friendlier terrain for the bill than the GOP-led House, but it will likely see a similar fight next week.

“All eyes now turn to the Senate, but Americans will not forget this stab in the back by the House, in particular those members who have pretended for years to be aligned with civil liberties,” said Sean Vitka, policy director with Demand Progress, a liberal advocacy group that works on privacy, competition and net neutrality issues.

“This failure to protect Americans’ privacy may well have just handed Donald Trump dramatically expanded warrantless surveillance powers while defeating the single meaningful privacy reform that remained in the debate by the slimmest conceivable margin.”


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