Surveillance Bill Clears Key Hurdle in House, Putting It Back on Track

By Equipo
7 Min Read

The House took a critical first step on Friday toward reauthorizing a law extending an expiring warrantless surveillance law that national security officials say is crucial to fighting terrorism, voting to take it up two days after a previous attempt to pass it collapsed.

Grasping to salvage the measure before the law expires next week, Speaker Mike Johnson put forward a shorter extension — two years instead of five — in a move that appeared to win over hard-right Republicans who blocked the bill earlier this week.

On a party-line vote of 213 to 208, the House agreed to take up the new version of the legislation, which would extend a section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act known as Section 702. That cleared the way for a debate Friday on proposed changes to the bill before a final vote on passage.

The preliminary vote on Friday suggested that the measure was back on track after former President Donald J. Trump implored lawmakers this week to “kill” FISA, complaining that government officials had used it to spy on him. Should it pass the House, the Senate would still have to clear it, sending it to President Biden for his signature.

Mr. Johnson’s two-year version of the bill was an attempt to mollify hard-right Republicans, who believe Mr. Trump would be president once again the next time the law expired. All 19 of them who voted to block the measure on Wednesday switched their positions on Friday to allow it to go forward.

On the House floor, Representative Michael Burgess, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the Rules Committee, praised the bill’s shorter envisioned reauthorization. He credited an influential member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, Representative Chip Roy of Texas, with the idea of cutting back the renewal to two years.

“That’s important,” Mr. Burgess said. “Reforms that are now incorporated in the new FISA reauthorization will be re-evaluated by the next Congress as to whether or not they’re actually working.”

Mr. Johnson also released a document moments shortly before the vote Friday morning touting the bill as “the largest intelligence reform package since FISA’s inception in 1978.”

Even so, the intelligence community has urged Congress to pass a reauthorization of the legislation before the program enters a sort of legal limbo, where the outcomes of court challenges to it would be uncertain.

At issue is a debate that has roiled Congress for months. Under Section 702, the government is empowered to collect, without warrants, the messages of noncitizens abroad, even when those targeted are communicating with Americans.

As a result, the government sometimes collects Americans’ private messages without a warrant. While there are limits on how that material can be searched for and used, the F.B.I. has repeatedly violated those constraints in recent years — including improperly querying for information about Black Lives Matter protesters and people suspected of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

The F.B.I. has since tightened its system to reduce the risk of queries that violate the standards, and the bill under consideration would codify those changes and add reporting requirements, as well as limiting the number of officials with access to the repository of raw information.

But reformers — including both progressive Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans — want to add a requirement that prohibits warrantless queries in the repository for the contents of Americans’ communications, with certain narrow exceptions.

“Why are we being hustled to do this today?” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, who favors a warrant requirement. She added: “I think we are being hustled here today for a reason: to prevent the Constitution from being applied to FISA.”

Critics led by Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, will have a chance to try to add the warrant requirement to the bill on Friday before a final vote.

National security officials argue that doing so would cripple the program because they typically use it early in investigations, such as to try to learn more about an American phone number or email account in contact with a suspected foreign spy or terrorist, before there is enough evidence to meet a probable cause standard for a warrant.

On Friday, ahead of the vote, a senior national security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, asserted that hostile adversaries were watching the congressional debate closely and hoping that lawmakers would deprive U.S. intelligence agencies of a key capability.

Senior lawmakers on the House national security committees, including Representatives Michael R. Turner of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Jim Himes of Connecticut, its top Democrat, have also resisted such changes. They are backing the more modest adjustments in the bill.

The House is also set to vote on several other significant amendments to the surveillance law before voting on the extension itself, including a measure pushed by Mr. Turner and Mr. Himes that would expand the types of companies with access to foreign communications that could be compelled to participate in the program.

Kayla Guo contributed reporting.

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