Disregarding President Donald Trump’s tweets on Thursday, the House of Representatives voted to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which critics say allows the federal government to snoop unadvisedly into Americans’ telephone conversations. Legislators thus delivered a notable victory to federal intelligence agencies that contend that the FISA powers is an important tool in preventing future terror attacks. The House voted to extend the provision for six years.
The House and Senate are headed toward a January 19 deadline to renew Section 702, which allows the federal government to surveill emails, telephone calls, and other communications of foreigners overseas. However, American’s communications can also be swept up by intelligence agencies if they are part of those communications.
President Trump tweeted on Thursday that FISA was misused to conduct surveillance on his presidential campaign, and perhaps brought about the ongoing investigations into supposed collusion with Russia. However, Trump later tweeted that he supports the renewal of Section 702, noting that he has already taken action to prevent its abuse.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) blasted the president’s remarks, saying “This is irresponsible, untrue, and frankly it endangers our national security.” Warner is the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee.
“It is absolutely vitally important that we not impair the most important intelligence gathering mechanism the United States has,” said House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). The vote was 256-164 in favor of the bill. Nearly all Republicans, and about a third of Democrats, backed the legislation.
There are opponents to Section 702 on both sides of the aisle of both chambers of Congress. A proposal sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), the USA Rights Act, would allow “incidental” collection of Americans’ communications, but requires the federal government to obtain a warrant for any non-national security purpose. “We have a debate today about whether to put the F back in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The F means foreign,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI). Sensenbrenner wrote the original Patriot Act, but has back more robust protections for civil liberties. “As a former Army Ranger I know the importance of section 702 in defeating the enemies of our country,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH). He added, “For American citizens, it is your data that is subject here.”
However, leaders of the Democrats and Republicans opted to support the main bill, contending that imposing new “walls” between domestic investigators and foreign intelligence sources would return to era before 9/11 when the government missed signs of the impending attack. “It’s about where you strike the balance,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who pleaded with her members to renew the powers. Conservative Rep. Steve King (R-IA) made a strange bedfellow for Pelosi on the issue. Finding common ground with the leader of the House Democrats, King said, “You would see the color drain out of the faces of all of our security personnel … if we lost the ability and went dark on 702.”
The Senate must still vote to approve the bill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) vowed to filibuster over the bill in the Senate, saying, "My worry is that they also collect information on millions of Americans, and I don't want that database to be searched without a warrant." The Kentucky Republican added, "I will filibuster and do whatever to stop that." However, Paul said he would vote to reauthorize Section 702 if protections are added to protect Americans’ private information. He said that he supports , and added that he supports the USA Rights Act.
In a second tweet on Thursday, President Trump wrote that he has amended the process used by the government to snoop on electronic communications. It was during the Obama administration that a FISA court was petitioned to allow surveillance that may have collected data on Trump’s political campaign. Trump has repeatedly said that he believes that the Obama administration was engaging in political machinations through the use of the FISA authorization. Trump tweeted, “With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”
Trump did not exactly specify the changes being made, but White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Thursday that Trump had earlier demanding a new policy for “unmasking”: which is the process by which the government can specifically identify Americans whose data is collected by American intelligence agencies. Also on Thursday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates released the new policy on Thursday morning, hours after the president’s tweets. The new policy allows top intelligence community chiefs “or their designees” to approve requests for Americans’ names to be attached to their communications, and those receiving the information must be identified by name or title. Requests for persons belonging to a presidential transition team must be approved by the chief lawyer for the intelligence community.
Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.