NSA Surveillance Bill Sparks Lawmaker Debate Over ‘Unmasking’

  • House Intelligence approves four-year extension of program
  • Partisan debate centers on Trump’s claim he was wiretapped

National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Source: Getty Images North America

Legislation to extend a major U.S. surveillance program that’s about to expire became a forum Friday for partisan debate over President Donald Trump’s allegation that the Obama administration “wiretapped” Trump Tower last year.

The House Intelligence Committee ultimately approved along party lines its version of a bill to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for four years. The program, which is set to lapse at the end of this month, lets the National Security Agency intercept calls or emails from suspected foreign terrorists outside of the U.S.

But the hearing took a detour over a provision that would limit the “unmasking” of Americans caught up in surveillance of a foreign target. Republicans assert that aides to President Barack Obama sought damaging information on Trump and his advisers by improperly asking intelligence agencies to tell them the names of those captured in such surveillance.

“What’s happening this morning is an attempt to feed the beast of this idea that Barack Obama’s administration officials illegally unmasked Americans,” said Democratic Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut.

No Evidence

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the committee’s top Democrat, said, “We’ve uncovered not a scintilla of evidence that there was ever any improper unmasking in the 702 program.”

Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican, expressed befuddlement and anger that Democrats would even argue that trying to “make the screws tighter” on unmasking was a partisan issue.

“How that is political, I have no idea,” he said. “But that just goes to show how far this committee has dissolved.”

The measure to extend the 702 program is one of five versions circulating in the House and Senate. The foreign spying program -- disclosed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden -- is called invaluable by intelligence agencies.

But it’s criticized by civil liberties groups because the names of Americans can be captured if they come up in the communications and then can be found by intelligence agencies through database searches.

The Intelligence Committee’s bill would give the government the option of whether to seek a warrant before accessing information on Americans but would require a court order to use the content of such communications.

— With assistance by Chris Strohm

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