House votes to reauthorize FISA, without the warrant requirement amendment - 5 minutes read

After three failed attempts and a heated floor debate, the House voted on Friday to reauthorize a controversial program that lets US intelligence agencies spy on foreign communications without a warrant. The bill ultimately passed 273–147.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is scheduled by statute to expire on April 19th, though the FISA court recently granted a government request that would have authorized the program for another year without congressional approval. 

The battle over the amendments to the bill revealed some unexpected alliances in the House over privacy issues. A bipartisan coalition of progressives and members of the far-right Freedom Caucus rallied together behind an amendment to impose a warrant requirement for surveillance of Americans, but was narrowly defeated 212–212.

Securing enough House votes to reauthorize FISA has been an uphill battle for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). The speaker had failed to move the bill forward twice already when former president Donald Trump inserted himself into the discourse on Tuesday by railing against FISA on Truth Social. “KILL FISA, IT WAS ILLEGALLY USED AGAINST ME, AND MANY OTHERS. THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN!!!” he posted.

“KILL FISA,” Trump posted on Truth Social

On Wednesday, the House voted against debating the FISA reauthorization bill, blocking the path for a floor vote — making it a third failure for the speaker. That version of the bill, which was released on April 5th, lacked an amendment requiring a warrant to search Americans’ data. It did, however, include resolutions “denouncing the Biden administration’s immigration policies” and “opposing efforts to place one-sided pressure on Israel with respect to Gaza.” Nineteen Republicans joined Democrats in voting against debating the bill at all. To sway the recalcitrant members of his party, Johnson put forth a new version of the bill that reauthorized Section 702 for two years instead of five. 

“We just bought President Trump an at bat,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told NBC News, referring to the two-year extension in the latest version of the bill. “The previous version of this bill would have kicked reauthorization beyond the Trump presidency. Now President Trump gets an at bat to fix the system that victimized him more than any other American.”

In addition to shortening the extension to two years, the Republican holdouts once again pushed for a bipartisan amendment that would require intelligence officers to obtain a warrant before accessing Americans’ data.

“We are actually debating if a warrant should be required for government surveillance agencies to spy on Americans,” Rep. Keith Self (R-TX) said in a debate on the House floor. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said the lack of a warrant requirement had enabled surveillance agencies to use Section 702 as a “domestic spy tool,” while Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) said the authority had been used in “millions” of improper searches, allowing intelligence officers to spy on a range of domestic targets, from ex-girlfriends to journalists.

National security hawks, meanwhile, characterized the warrant requirement as a risk to the country.

The warrant requirement amendment narrowly failed to pass

“This amendment is not about Americans’ inboxes and outboxes. This amendment is not about Americans’ data. This amendment is about Hezbollah’s data, Hamas’s data, and the Chinese communist party’s data,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH). “This is dangerous, it will make us go blind, and it will absolutely increase their recruitment of people inside the United States — not even American citizens — to do terrorist attacks and harm Americans.”

The warrant requirement amendment narrowly failed to pass, with 212 members voting for it and 212 voting against.

A separate amendment introduced by Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), which requires the FBI to report the number of Americans it’s spying on, passed, as did an amendment introduced by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) that updates the definition of foreign intelligence to help target foreign narcotics trafficking. (More than 90 percent of the fentanyl seized by Customs and Border Protection is smuggled through official border crossings by US citizens.) In a statement to Politico, CIA director Bill Burns said Section 702 has been vital to the agency’s disruption of fentanyl shipments to the US.

“The thing about this bill — it doesn’t rein in surveillance, it actually expands it. We’ve had four years of abuses, and what we got instead of a bill that reforms things is a bill with provisions that actually expands warrantless surveillance,” Kia Hamadanchy, senior federal policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Verge. “Whenever you expand the definition of foreign intelligence, it always has potential to be used in unintended ways.”

The Senate still needs to vote on the reauthorization ahead of the April 19th deadline.

In a statement, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) decried the House vote. “The House bill represents one of the most dramatic and terrifying expansions of government surveillance authority in history,” Wyden said. “It allows the government to force any American who installs, maintains, or repairs anything that transmits or stores communications to spy on the government’s behalf. That means anyone with access to a server, a wire, a cable box, a wifi router, or a phone. It would be secret: the Americans receiving the government directives would be bound to silence, and there would be no court oversight. I will do everything in my power to stop this bill.”

Update April 12, 4:50PM ET: The article has been updated with a statement from Sen. Wyden.

Source: The Verge

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