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.

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. 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.

Although Trump later 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 top Democrat 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.

Similarly, on Thursday, Trump appeared to tie together several connected but disparate issues — FISA wiretaps of Americans, unmasking and the foreign-focused 702 programs.

Trump’s first tweet seemingly accused the Obama administration of using the 702 statute to spy on his campaign, an unproven claim that experts say misportrays how the 702 tools work. The second tweet, now indicating support for the 702 extension bill, referenced Trump’s recent memo ordering the director of national intelligence to design new procedures for handling unmasking requests.

But national security hawks still won out on Thursday, potentially signaling a looming pendulum shift, nearly five years after the Snowden leaks.

The bill’s opponents aren’t done yet, though. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have both vowed to filibuster the bill and fight for the USA Rights Act. And a Paul aide told CNN Thursday that the president called Paul to offer his support the USA Rights Act, further clouding the issue.

After Thursday’s vote, Paul confirmed that he talked to the president.

“I think he supports the concept that there needs to be more oversight of the intelligence community,” he told reporters, but added, “which specifics of which legislation [and] which amendment he supports, you’ll probably have to ask them.”

The president has “nuanced views on the legislation and there are people around him who are pushing him in one direction,” said libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who led the charge in the House to pass the USA Rights Act. “Hopefully the president will have a chance to really review it and understand and will push back against what’s going on.”

Still, Amash and Paul conceded that they face steep odds in stopping the Senate from passing the leadership-preferred bill, raising the question of whether Trump might make an 11th-hour reversal and refuse to sign the legislation.

“I do think his tweet this morning indicated that he thinks there needs to be more oversight of FISA, not less,” Paul said.

Rachel Bade contributed to this report.


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