Surveillance bill clears key hurdle amid confusion over Trump tweets
The House on Thursday passed a long-term extension of controversial online spying tools just hours after President Donald Trump sparked confusion with successive tweets that condemned, then supported the measure.
The bill, which passed by a 256-164 vote, would renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for six years, allowing the intelligence agencies to retain powers that libertarians and privacy advocates have spent years trying to rein in, but that national security leaders say are critical to the country’s fight against terrorism and crime.
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The measure now heads to the Senate, where it has a good shot of passing, although at least two lawmakers have vowed to filibuster. The White House has said Trump will sign the bill if it gets to his desk.
Passage of the bill was in doubt until the final minutes. GOP leaders scrambled on Wednesday and into Thursday morning to gather the support needed and to fend off an insurgent push from the libertarian House Freedom Caucus and privacy-minded Democrats to instead pass a renewal bill that would significantly rein in the 702 programs, which hoover up the digital chatter of foreigners overseas, but also incidentally gather data on Americans.
Those last-minute efforts were further imperiled by Trump’s tweets Thursday morning, suggesting the 702 programs were used to spy on him and his staff during and after the 2016 presidential election. The president’s tweets — which quoted a graphic from “Fox & Friends” — lit up the House GOP conference Thursday morning. Republicans fretted about backing legislation that the president opposed, pointing to Trump’s initial tweet blaming the legislation for what he’s dubbed the Russia probe “witch-hunt.”
At one point, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pulled up the president’s Twitter account on his phone, handed his phone to House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, and had the California Republican read the second tweet, where Trump clarified his support for the FISA bill. Earlier that morning, after the first tweet, House GOP leaders phoned Trump and the White House to ask him to clarify his comments and find out if he had any objections.
“I think [House Republicans] just needed more clarification. Was there support? What was the concern? What were his issues?” said House Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.). “For members who were somewhat undecided or lean-no or lean-yes, if the president comes in and weighs in on something, I think that is impactful. And that’s why they wanted to make sure that at the end of the day, or at the end of this conversation, that he is supportive overall of this bill.”
Although Trump complied, voicing his full-throated support for the leadership-supported bill two hours after the first tweet, the back-and-forth still left many baffled, with Democrats like California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee and a supporter of the leadership-preferred bill, even calling for a delay on the votes.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), the GOP’s deputy whip and chair of the House’s NSA subpanel, said that after Trump’s first tweet, “I definitely heard from some other members that they’re like, ‘Well fine, I’m voting no then. If he doesn’t care, then I don’t care.'”
“For sure” it made things harder, added Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah.), who chairs the House’s defense intelligence subcommittee.
But Republican leaders were still able to defeat the libertarian- and privacy-advocate measure, dubbed the USA Rights Act, that would have overhauled the 702 statute. Lawmakers also voted down an amendment from Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House’s NSA and cybersecurity subpanel, that would have injected a warrant requirement for agencies seeking to access Americans’ data in the database of 702-intercepted communications — a key sticking point for privacy advocates.
Still, Thursday’s vote reflects the general unease among many in both parties over the government’s powerful electronic snooping efforts. It’s a debate that has gripped Capitol Hill since 2013, when government contractor Edward Snowden dumped a cache of documents revealing the vast underbelly of the intelligence community’s surveillance apparatus. Two years later, Congress voted to end a government program that swept up Americans’ phone records.
Since Trump’s inauguration, the 702 statute has been pulled into broader debates about surveillance, domestic wiretaps and the so-called unmasking process by which Americans’ identities can be exposed in intelligence reports.
Last March, Trump claimed without evidence that “[former President Barack] Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” which provided an early public relations victory for lawmakers seeking to curb the 702 programs even though the issues weren’t directly related.