The House passed a bill Thursday reauthorizing a controversial National Security Agency (NSA) authority to conduct warrantless surveillance against foreign suspects outside of the U.S.
Lawmakers voted 256-164 across party lines to extend Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act for another six years, and offered minimal changes in the legislation despite lengthy debate about loopholes in the provision that may allow intelligence community officials to conduct domestic surveillance on American citizens.
“The House of Representatives has taken a big step to ensure the continuation of one of the Intelligence Community’s most vital tools for tracking foreign terrorists. This bill also provides new, rigorous measures to protect Americans’ privacy and to ensure the program is used properly to target foreign terrorists, weapons proliferators, and other threats to Americans’ safety and security. I am gratified with this strong, bipartisan vote and look forward to the bill’s swift passage in the Senate,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
NSA, FBI and Department of Justice officials argue 702 plays a critical role in collecting communications to thwart national security threats. The authority was set to expire at the end of 2017, but a short-term budget resolution pushed back the deadline to January 19.
Privacy advocates argue 702 allows the intelligence community to access incidental communications of Americans who may have interacted with foreign suspects and then carry out warrantless domestic surveillance.
“The House just voted to turn the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act into a tool for domestic spying on Americans,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, in a statement. “The government obtains this data without a warrant and in massive amounts, based on a promise that it is not trying to access Americans’ communications. But 256 members of the House think FBI agents should have warrantless access to Americans’ calls and emails, even in investigations that have literally nothing to do with national security.”
The House Rules Committee met Tuesday and permitted an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) that would require warrants for any agency seeking access to American’s data picked up in 702 intelligence operations. Amash’s amendment failed on the House floor by a vote of 183 to 233.
Prior to Thursday’s vote, confusion surrounded the official White House position on 702 after a tweet from President Trump contradicted an official statement released Wednesday evening opposing Amash’s amendment.
“This amendment would re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11 in order to increase information sharing and improve our national security. The Administration urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives,” the White House wrote in a release Wednesday.
Trump sent a follow up tweet after consulting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), affirming the position in the original White House statement.
Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the co-sponsors of previous 702 reform legislation, issued a joint statement Thursday calling on further deliberation in the Senate on privacy measures.
“Unfortunately, the House bill falls short in providing critical protections for Americans whose communications are routinely swept up by this powerful foreign intelligence tool. In the Senate, our USA Liberty Act provides a sensible compromise, preserving the government’s ability to use this important national security tool, while also protecting Americans’ fundamental Fourth Amendment privacy rights. Our bill makes clear that Americans need and deserve both security and protection of their privacy,” Lee and Leahy said in their statement. “Now it is time for Leader McConnell to do what Speaker Ryan did, and allow Senators a chance to vote and offer amendments on the Section 702 reauthorization debate. The American public deserves a full and transparent debate, and members of the Senate deserve to have the same opportunity as did members of the House to discuss and amend legislation reforming this vital surveillance tool.”
The Senate is expected to take up 702 reauthorization legislation next week.