The program allows intel agencies to collect communications from foreigners who are overseas.
The House of Representatives voted Thursday to renew some of the U.S. government’s sweeping digital surveillance powers, despite objections from Democrats, Republicans and a chorus of activists who had agonized for new safeguards for Americans’ privacy.
The portion of law — known as the FISA Amendments Act — particularly allows the U.S. intelligence community to collect emails, texts and other communications data about foreigners who are overseas. The full scope of the program became most apparent in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013.
Long frustrated with the program, civil-liberties activists — in and outside of Congress — had sought new limits on those powers this year. They particularly aimed to require intelligence agencies to obtain warrants before searching their data stores for information about Americans, whose communications sometimes are swept up.
The push for greater privacy even muddied the usual partisan waters in Washington, D.C., pitting a broad coalition of Democrats and Republicans against their own leadership as well as President Donald Trump, who did not back such changes to the law. After an impassioned fight on the House floor, however, Congress rejected the amendment, then voted to reauthorize broad swaths of the existing FISA program.
“The consequences are really high,” charged Speaker Paul Ryan, as he sought to ward off last-minute changes to the bill. “This strikes the balance that we must have between honoring and protecting the privacy rights of citizens … and making sure we have the tools we need in this age of 21st century terrorism to keep our citizens safe.”
Technically, the program authorized under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act doesn’t allow the U.S. government to collect emails, texts and other data about Americans. Sometimes, though, their data are collected anyway — as a result of communicating with foreigners who are abroad, for example.
Privacy hawks have sought for years to limit that sort of “incidental” collection, while making it harder for the U.S. government to tap that data as part of their investigations. And with the FISA law set to expire in the coming days, unless Congress acted to revive it, they had an opening to push new changes to U.S. surveillance law.
Privacy hawks like Republican Rep. Justin Amash and Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren explicitly wanted the U.S. government to obtain a warrant before tapping its trove of data in probes involving Americans. Their efforts prompted a fiery debate on the House floor. “Get a warrant … or stay out of that information,” stressed Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas.
Adding to the drama, Trump sent confusing signals about his position in the debate. While the White House long has maintained it supports the FISA program in its current form, the president unexpectedly criticized the program in a tweet sent just hours before House lawmakers began their debate. Then, Trump appeared to walk it back, tweeting: “We need it!”
Still, the whole of Congress rejected lawmakers’ privacy-minded amendment on a 183-233 vote before adopting the renewal outright. As it stands, the House bill currently includes a much more limited requirement that law enforcement obtain a warrant essentially late in their investigation.
The debate now rests in the hands of the Senate, where it could prove even more difficult to impose new checks on U.S. surveillance — though some lawmakers say they’ll try. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Republican Sen. Rand Paul each pledged to thwart passage of the FISA bill in its current form, even with its Jan. 19 expiration date looming.
“A concerted campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation pushed this flawed bill over the line,” Wyden said in a statement after the vote, before stressing: “The Senate must allow real debate and amendments, and not push this legislation through in the dark.”
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