A debate about the scope of government spying ricocheted around Washington on Thursday, with seesaw presidential tweets and impassioned debate on Capitol Hill that culminated with a House vote to extend and expand massive U.S. surveillance powers.
The vote pitted supporters who say the spying powers have kept the homeland safe from terrorism and opponents who see the spying as a threat to the privacy of Americans.
Lawmakers voted 256-164 to extend surveillance powers for six more years, giving a major victory to President Donald Trump. In an earlier vote, lawmakers turned down a move to put limits on warrantless spying that critics say has swept up emails, photos and text messages of an untold number of U.S. citizens.
The Senate now faces a deadline to vote by Jan. 19, when formal surveillance authorities expire after a temporary extension in late December. After the House vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell limited debate in his chamber on the measure and smoothed passage for a final vote there.
The issue brought together the bipartisan leadership of the House to thwart a bid by libertarian-leaning Republicans and privacy advocates among Democrats to put sharp restrictions on the surveillance authorities under an expiring statute, known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.
At its core, the authority is a global surveillance program that the intelligence community says is crucial to keeping the nation safe from terrorist attack.
In rejecting a move to put limits on the program via an amendment, House leaders cast the issue in stark national security terms.
“You pass this amendment, we are flying blind in our fight against terrorists,” Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said. “The consequences are really high.”
“This chamber cannot be complicit in letting terrorists fly under the radar,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
Those seeking new restrictions said they sought to put the “foreign” back in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and keep the eyes of the intelligence agencies from wondering onto the communications of Americans who are inadvertently swept up.
“We are collecting vast amounts — we can’t go into the numbers here in open session — vast amounts of data. It’s not metadata. It’s content. It’s the content of your phone calls, the content of your emails, content of your text messages, video messages,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat.
Early in the debate, the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, called for the vote to be delayed, saying two early morning tweets by President Trump raised the profile of the issue but also confused matters.
In a 7:33 a.m. tweet, Trump suggested that the FISA reauthorization, which his White House forcefully supported in a statement hours earlier, was linked to the dossier that alleges his campaign was supported by Russia.
“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” Trump asked.
The ranking member on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner, responded to Trump with his own tweet: “This is irresponsible, untrue, and frankly it endangers our national security. FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning.”
A couple of hours later, Trump acknowledged that “today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”
The nation’s top intelligence leaders have lobbied hard for the expiring statute, and mostly what is at stake are what safeguards to add to the program and how long to extend the authority. The House bill extends spying powers until 2023 before reconsideration in Congress.
“Nobody’s going to shoot down completely a program that provides 25 percent of the intelligence take for the president’s daily brief,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a consultant who has written about Section 702 for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Under the FISA surveillance program, intelligence agencies said in 2016 that they had 106,000 foreign targets, most of whom were suspected terrorists, proliferators, hackers or other potential enemies of the United States.
In the sweeps, the communications of U.S. citizens are also collected and stored in databases, and a partial focus of Thursday’s debate was the conditions under which authorities from a number of agencies can query those databases without warrants.
The bill that passed the House Thursday gives the government the option of obtaining a warrant before reading these communications, but establishes no requirement.
That drew the ire of some Republicans who say the government abuses its power.
“Government, as we learned from the British, cannot be trusted,” said Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and former criminal court judge. “Get a warrant.”
Civilian rights advocates say they fear searches of communications of Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing in what is known as the “backdoor search” loophole.
Human Rights Watch issued a report this week suggesting that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies may be conducting queries of the databases to gather leads, then constructing “parallel” investigations, leaving defendants, courts and the public in the dark about the facts leading to arrests.
If the Senate approves a similar proposal to the House bill, one rights advocate said such practices could escalate.
“The government will see that and say, okay, we basically have got free rein here. To whatever degree they are using this for routine investigations now, it will increase dramatically,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group.
Fireworks over the proposals may not be over. While the Senate bill is likely to receive bipartisan support, two senators have vowed to block the bill with filibusters.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, vowed on Wednesday to launch a filibuster, and Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, tweeted after the House vote that he, too, will filibuster.
Even if the Senate takes no action next week, intelligence agencies say they would have until April of this year to wind down intelligence programs under a certification issued by a secret foreign intelligence court. But in a statement in late December, top officials said uncertainty over the program’s fate creates “needless and wasteful operational complications.”