Surveillance bill stumbles again in US House on privacy concerns

By Thomson Reuters Apr 10, 2024 | 2:47 PM

By Raphael Satter, Moira Warburton and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A modest overhaul of a controversial U.S. surveillance program foundered in the House of Representatives on Wednesday after Democratic and Republican critics, including Donald Trump, said it gave the government too much power to spy on its citizens.

By a vote of 228-193, the Republican-controlled House prevented the bill from coming up for debate on the floor. That leaves the program in limbo shortly before it is due to expire on April 19.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, who backs the bill, told reporters he would “reformulate another plan” without saying what that might entail. “It’s too important to national security, I think most of the members understand that,” he said.

At issue are elements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that allow law enforcement to scan vast mountains of data scooped up by U.S. intelligence without first getting approval from a judge.

Hardline Republicans and left-leaning Democrats say that gives the government too much power to spy on its citizens.

A U.S. court found last year that the FBI improperly searched the FISA database 278,000 times over several years.

The law’s backers have responded with surface-level reforms that would leave the underlying bill largely unchanged.

The vote marks the third time that supporters have tried and failed to reauthorize the program in the House, which Republicans control by a narrow 218-213 majority. Some 19 Republicans and 209 Democrats voted against taking it up this time.

Johnson could now try to extend the program temporarily before it expires to give lawmakers more time to craft permanent changes.

The law, passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allows the U.S. government to spy on foreigners without getting court approval. The government is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, but their communications may be inadvertently collected during the process.

Critics say that effectively allows the government to arrest people using evidence that was gathered without court approval, violating the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches.

Trump, who is running to win back the White House from Democratic President Joe Biden in the Nov. 5 election, said the law was illegally used to spy on his campaign, without providing evidence. “IT WAS ILLEGALLY USED AGAINST ME, AND MANY OTHERS,” he wrote on social media.

Trump has enormous influence among his party’s lawmakers. His opposition scuttled a bipartisan immigration deal earlier this year.

Officials with the FBI and the Department of Justice say the program has been crucial in drug smuggling cases, foreign cybersecurity threats and cross-border crimes.

After the vote, opponents on the left and the right said they would try to require domestic-security agencies to get court approval before searching Americans’ communications.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday that officials would be “blinding ourselves” if they had to go to a judge before using the data. “I can assure you that none of our adversaries are holding back or tying their own hands,” he told the American Bar Association.

At a news conference before the vote, Johnson said the revised version included new protections for Americans.

“These reforms would actually kill the abuses that allowed President Trump’s campaign to be spied on,” he said.

Trump has feuded with U.S. intelligence agencies since the FBI investigated his 2016 presidential campaign for possible links to Russian intelligence. The Department of Justice concluded in 2019 that Trump’s campaign did not coordinate with Russia, but also found that he ordered officials to obstruct the investigation.

(Reporting by Raphael Satter, Moira Warburton, Katharine Jackson, Makini Brice, and David Morgan, writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)