The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, expires at the end of this year. This is the law that empowered the FBI to secretly spy on the American people. Will Congress renew it – perhaps even amend it somewhat, as has been done in the past? Not if Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and his allies have their way.
Gaetz is leading the charge, but much of the House Judiciary Subcommittee seemed to agree with him in a July 14 hearing, at least regarding the fact that FISA is rife with corruption and misuse and that it’s a problem that must be solved. Just how to fix it – or whether to fix it at all as opposed to simply letting it die at the end of the year – was the topic of the almost three-hour hearing.
As Controversial as the Events That Inspired It
Many probably think of FISA and government surveillance of civilians in general as a very post-9/11 thing – and, in a sense, it is. But FISA is, in fact, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. Passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, it allowed the government to keep tabs on Americans suspected of communicating with foreign agents. The Patriot Act greatly expanded the scope of FISA after the terror attacks of 2001, however, and there have been numerous minor changes since, including making it easier for the government to get a warrant to secretly surveil US citizens, for example.
“Since that time, and during this period of authorization, we’ve seen more than a million illegal FISA searches,” Gaetz said. “We’ve seen creepy behavior like FBI officials searching information on their exes. And we’ve seen a total lack of oversight from the court.” And who can forget the FISA request containing 17 errors that was submitted four separate times during the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation into the campaign of a presidential candidate – namely, Donald Trump? As Liberty Nation put it in 2020, “the idea that this many errors approved by that many officials was accidental is preposterous.”
It’s so preposterous that even the current director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, admitted that the handling of that investigation was “totally unacceptable” and “improper” while being questioned by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Though, of course, that was all his predecessor’s fault. Comey ran the Bureau back then, Wray was careful to point out.
Is the FISA Era Finally at an End?
“I think most folks are increasingly concerned about centralized power with our national security apparatus, given how political they’ve become,” said Gaetz, who introduced a resolution to let FISA die at the end of the year. “I take great lengths in my legislation to point out that it’s both left-wing groups like BLM and it’s also folks who were at the Capitol on January 6, who have seen their rights unfairly violated by FISA, and I’m equally aggrieved by both.”
After just over four pages of “whereas” clauses detailing the myriad abuses that the public is aware of, Gaetz’s resolution simply states:
“Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the authorities under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 should be allowed to expire at the end of this calendar year.”
So is that it? Will December 31, 2023, mark the end of the FISA era? The House voted 256-164 to renew FISA in 2018, the last time it came up, but that was before the corruption was exposed by the Durham report was known.
Appealing to the more extreme elements across the aisle may help, as Gaetz currently has but seven co-sponsors on the resolution. While Friday’s hearing did seem to go their way, those who hope to see FISA die this year will need more than just a single-digit handful of votes to make it happen.
In 2018, the Democrats were the biggest hurdle to the renewal. 191 Republicans voted for it with just 45 opposed, but the Democrats turned out 119-65 against. In theory, the syntax of the resolution benefits Gaetz and his compatriots. Rather than passing a bill through both the House and Senate, all he and his allies must do to watch FISA die at their feet is to capture that simple majority in the House. A unanimous vote in the Senate couldn’t renew FISA over the simple majority in the House holding it back.