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FISA Surveillance Bill on Hold as House Hashes Out Privacy Issues

It’s the age-old choice between privacy and security.

by | Feb 16, 2024 | Articles, Good Reads, Opinion, Politics

The annual renewal of a controversial government surveillance program has been set aside – for now. After much debate over warrant requirements, Republicans in the US House of Representatives had revealed a new package to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which ostensibly empowers American authorities to spy on noncitizens abroad – though, in practice, US citizens have often found themselves swept up in the net as well. But members of the two committees split over privacy concerns – Judiciary and Intelligence – still aren’t happy with the compromise.

Renewal Deferred

“In order to allow Congress more time to reach consensus on how best to reform FISA and Section 702 while maintaining the integrity of our critical national security programs, the House will consider the reform and reauthorization bill at a later date,” Raj Shah, a spokesperson for House Speaker Mike Johnson, posted to X.

Section 702 allows for surveillance of foreigners outside the US – but their communications with American citizens can and, it seems, often are captured as well. The issue between the committees with this year’s renewal is whether law enforcement can search through the data without a warrant.

The government surveillance program must be renewed each year – and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) had a novel idea last summer: Let it die. After an almost three-hour hearing in July 2023, much of the House Judiciary Committee seemed to agree with Gaetz that FISA is rife with corruption and misuse and that, rather than fix it, they should abandon it entirely. The Florida lawmaker’s resolution failed, though, and the annual renewal was deferred temporarily until April 2024.

Surveillance vs Privacy – AKA Security vs Liberty

The bill revealed Monday would renew Section 702 for another year, but it would also restrict the number of FBI personnel who can query the database, largely prohibit law enforcement from searching through the data to find evidence of a crime, and require the FBI to notify Congress and get consent before gathering information about a lawmaker being targeted by a foreign agent. It includes measures to strengthen warrant requirements before Americans can be surveilled.

new banner Congressional Clown ShowThese requirements, demanded by the House Judiciary Committee, seek to protect the privacy of American citizens, and were inspired by what happened to Carter Page, the Trump campaign advisor who was spied on by the FBI during the 2016 election cycle. As Liberty Nation’s Graham J Noble explained in 2020, “America’s top law enforcement agency cobbled together a phony conspiracy theory and hoodwinked a foreign intelligence surveillance court into granting them a warrant to spy on a U.S. citizen.”

“To this day, Carter Page has not been charged with a crime – nor even credibly accused of one – but his association with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign made him a target for those who were searching for a way to derail Trump’s White House aspirations,” he continued. The 17 “errors” that were submitted four times during the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation were so egregious that even FBI Director Christopher Wray admitted the Bureau’s handling of the situation was “totally unacceptable” and “improper.”

But these requirements don’t go far enough for many Judiciary members – and they go much too far in the eyes of the Intelligence Committee. Both sides were poised to try and get what they really wanted through amendments, which would give the entire House the opportunity to weigh in on each individual issue.

The Future of FISA

“I don’t think the House – either body – has ever had a straight up and down vote on the warrant requirement to query U.S. persons in the 702 database,” House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters. “And we need a straight-up, up and down vote – real, full debate. I think the country needs to see that.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) disagrees. “The strategy is so unwieldy that if two or three of the expected amendments were adopted in combination, there may be nobody left to support the bill,” he argued, calling the tactic “highly suspect.”

It isn’t clear yet when the bill will have its day on the floor – but Congress is scheduled to leave soon for a two-week recess. Returning in March, House members won’t have much time to hash out their differences before the authorizations expire. But as Rep. Nadler seems to suspect – and as Rep. Gaetz and his allies no doubt hope – perhaps that’s the goal.

Read More From James Fite

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