With a March 15 deadline looming, the House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would extend controversial provisions of a sweeping surveillance law for three years.
The bill, which passed 278-136, renews and makes changes to three provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that allows the federal government to conduct surveillance and access certain records when conducting intelligence investigations.
Three key provisions of the law are set to expire on March 15 and opposition from both the left and right threatened to scuttle their reauthorization before party leaders were able to strike a deal on Tuesday.
The reauthorized provisions include one that allows the government to obtain certain types of documents in intelligence investigations and others that authorize surveillance of people who do not have ties to specific foreign countries or terror groups and wiretaps that can move when a target changes devices.
Chief among the reforms in the bill is the elimination of an authorization in the records provision, known as section 215, that allows the government to collect details about phone calls and text messages, including which numbers contacted each other and how long calls lasted.
Though the program was suspended in 2019, Greg Nojeim, the director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the reform is significant because a future administration would need to expressly ask Congress in order to revive it.
“It’s been proven to be not very useful and very privacy-invasive and we’re glad that Congress is putting the nail in the coffin on that program by repealing the statutory authorization,” Nojeim said in an interview.
The bill also requires the government to get a warrant if it would be required to do so to obtain the records it seeks in a traditional law enforcement investigation. It also mandates the government notify people who are targeted in national security investigations if their information will be used in a legal proceeding or criminal prosecution.
In addition, the bill expands the instances in which secretive intelligence courts appoint friends of the court, known as amicus curiae, to aid in their decision making.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said while the bill does not make all of the changes he would like to see to the government’s surveillance authority, it does include important reforms.
“Our job as members of Congress is to make sure that our intelligence capabilities are robust, but also to provide a critical check to claw back authorities that go too far and to press for changes that protect our civil liberties to the maximum extent possible,” Nadler said on the House floor before the vote.
The Trump administration has signaled support for the reauthorization, but it has faced bipartisan opposition from a coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans with civil libertarian leanings. In the end, more Democrats than Republicans voted against the reauthorization legislation in the House.
“I have reviewed the House FISA bill and support its passage,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement. “The bill contains an array of new requirements and compliance provisions that will protect against abuse and misuse in the future while ensuring that this critical tool is available when appropriate to protect the safety of the American people.”
Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the bill, even while acknowledging it includes some positive reforms from previous legislation.
“After weeks of huffing and puffing over FISA surveillance abuses, Congress has delivered yet another half-measure and is now trying to jam it through with little debate and no amendments,” Christopher Anders, the deputy political director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “With only minimal improvements over current law, the reforms in this backroom deal fall far short of what is needed to protect our privacy rights.”
Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who was one of the lawmakers whose opposition made the bill’s future uncertain, agreed with the ACLU’s characterization of the legislation in a floor speech explaining her decision to vote against the bill.
A contentious issue at any time in Washington, the reauthorization fight comes amid renewed scrutiny of the federal government’s surveillance authority following its use during investigations into allegations of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed his campaign was spied on and that the FBI targeted the campaign out of political animus.
A December report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz quashed Trump’s allegations, finding the probes were properly initiated and not tainted with political bias. But the report was sharply critical of how the FBI handled applications to conduct surveillance of Carter Page, who at the time was working as an adviser to the Trump campaign.
Responding to concerns from Republicans over this conduct, the legislation also creates protections for people engaged in First Amendment activities.
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