Johnson Draws Ire Of Pro-Privacy Faction Ahead Of Surveillance Law Vote

Advocates will get a chance for a floor vote on how agencies gather personal data, but they say it’s a set up.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) will give pro-privacy advocates something they wanted in the upcoming debate over renewing an anti-terror surveillance law: a floor vote on how law enforcement agencies can get hold of personal info on Americans without a warrant.

But critics say the move is a ploy meant to ensure the provision doesn’t make it into any final bill.

“Johnson has showed his true colors. His desire to appease [House] Intelligence Committee chair Mike Turner [R-Ohio] outweighs any sense of responsibility he might have to the American people, and he is ready and willing to betray their trust,” said Elizabeth Goitein, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program in a social media post.

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), whose Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act would prohibit law enforcement agencies from buying personal data, like location history, from private companies, told Politico, “They essentially want to concede that, ‘Okay, we allowed the debate to happen — but we are working very aggressively to make sure it doesn’t become law.’”

Facing potentially the two politically toughest weeks of his speakership so far, Johnson has to navigate two virtual minefields: getting the House to approve renewal of a 9/11-era law governing how U.S. law enforcement agencies track potential spies overseas, and a long-delayed funding package for Ukraine Johnson said would be dealt with after Easter.

The two issues cleave along different lines, even in his own conference. Pro-privacy advocates favor overhauling the surveillance law, especially the post-9/11 Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that has allowed for spying on Americans even while targeting foreigners. Others, led by Turner, want minimal changes in the name of national security. Both factions have Democrats who agree with them.

Johnson has yet to say exactly what he will put in a Ukraine aid bill, but firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has threatened to call an ouster vote against him if he allows a floor vote on it.

Against that backdrop, Johnson has tried to tread carefully. In December, the original plan on FISA was to have competing surveillance bills from Turner and from House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) come to the floor. But that idea crashed, and lawmakers approved a straight extension through April 19.

In February, Johnson planned something similar to what he hopes to see this week: a base bill, but with competing amendments on controversial items like database searches that turn up Americans’ information and agencies buying data from private companies that they could not collect themselves without a warrant. That’s what Davidson’s bill deals with.

But that plan fell apart after Turner raised concerns over a Russian anti-satellite weapons program and was accused of threatening to block floor votes on the bill to avoid seeing the pro-privacy amendments come to the floor.

With April 19 looming, Johnson needs to get a surveillance bill across the House floor this week to give the Senate time to OK it too. But on Friday, the new FISA bill that would be amended was unveiled and civil liberties advocates were upset it didn’t allow for an amendment on agencies buying data.

Instead, Davidson’s bill was scheduled for its own stand-alone vote later in the week, but with the requirement it would have to get a two-thirds majority to pass. Civil liberties groups saw the move as a stab in the back, given the bigger majority needed for approval and that the Senate could ignore the bill in a way it could not if it was part of the FISA renewal bill.

“The speaker’s thumb is about to break the scale,” said Sean Vitka, policy director for Demand Progress.

“Despite overwhelming, bipartisan support to protect Americans’ privacy in the House Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over FISA, Johnson instead appears to be siding with the Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner and spying agencies.”

Greene said she’ll vote against the overall FISA bill and posted on her social media, “FISA has been abused by our government to spy on hundreds of thousands of Americans, and I don’t trust our government to stop abusing FISA.”

Turner, in an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” show, said critics were being untrue in their descriptions of the law.

“These are foreigners abroad. They’re a select group of individuals who are a national security threat,” he said. “If you’re an American and you’re corresponding with ISIS, yes, if we’re spying on ISIS, your communications are going to be captured. You would want us to do that.”

A request for comment with Johnson’s office was not immediately returned, but on Friday in a letter to his fellow Republicans, he said of the FISA bill, “Our responsibility now is simple: maintain the tool but strictly prohibit future abuses.”

In July of 2023, though, Johnson had not been tapped to be speaker yet and was on the Judiciary Committee considering Davidson’s Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale bill.

Along with 29 other members of the committee from both parties, he voted in its favor.

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