Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

House Aims to Pass Revised Surveillance Bill as Deadline Looms

  • Measure adds some limits on access to a vast database
  • Opponents say the proposal fails to protect civil liberties

House leaders intend to take another stab next week at advancing a long-term extension of a program for conducting foreign surveillance that is about to expire, but there are opponents on both sides of the aisle.

A key issue has been demands by some lawmakers for more stringent limits on when officials can access Americans’ communications incidentally caught in the foreign surveillance. The Trump administration and the intelligence community want to preserve the program as is.

Republicans on Friday released a revamped measure to make changes to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, or FISA. The program allows the National Security Agency to intercept calls or emails from suspected foreign terrorists outside the U.S. 

The House Rules Committee is scheduled to consider the measure on Wednesday, when it could be advanced to the House floor for a vote.

The existing language was set to lapse at the end of 2017. However, party leaders’ efforts to address some of the demands for changes sputtered in December and the current version was temporarily extended through Jan. 19. The aim was to allow more time for negotiating, explaining the bill to members, and rounding up enough votes from both parties needed for passage.

In fact, the proposed text released Friday remains largely reflective of an earlier version released by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican. 

It includes a requirement that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in most potential criminal cases "unrelated to national security," seek a court order before viewing information about Americans’ communications in the program database. But there are various exceptions.

Critics were quick to renew their complaints that the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect Americans from being spied upon.

Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement the measure is a "warmed-over version of a bill that has already been panned by companies, as well as the privacy and civil liberties community." 

He called the new warrant requirement "a fig leaf for reform" and said it doesn’t address a "vast majority" of searches of information under the law. Nadler said he will oppose it, and his sentiment was supported by others who have concerns about the law.

“We strongly oppose this legislation,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This bill is not reform by any stretch of the imagination. It leaves the door wide open to abusive surveillance practices that allow the government to search the intimate emails, text messages, and other sensitive data of Americans without a warrant of any kind."

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