House Votes to Renew, Expand Authority to Snoop on Americans

Justin AmashMembers of the House rejected today an effort to mandate that federal officials obtain warrants to access data collected secretly about Americans as part of the push to renew foreign intelligence surveillance authorizations.

The USA RIGHTS Act, pushed in the house by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) was not adopted. After an intense debate, the vote failed 183-233.

The USA RIGHTS Act was an attempt to fix some serious privacy problems with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorities under Section 702. Though FISA is supposed to be used for snooping on foreign targets, it has been brought to bear against Americans and used for domestic crime cases, secretly and without warrants.

Section 702 was set to expire at the end of 2017 and civil rights groups and privacy-minded lawmakers demanded reforms so that the FBI and National Security Administration (NSA) would be required to get warrants before accessing or even querying these databases for information and communications from Americans.

That's what the USA RIGHTS Act was meant to do, and it failed. About two-thirds of the Republicans voted against the amendment and about two-thirds of the Democrats voted for it, so it wasn't really a "party line" vote, but the Democrats could have pushed it through had they all supported it. Several ranking Democrats openly supported increasing the powers of a surveillance state, even under a president they loathe. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, both Democrats, voted against Amash.)

Instead, the House voted 256 to 164 in favor of the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017. This bill doesn't just renew Section 702 for six years; it also codifies permission for the FBI to access and use data secretly collected by Americans for a host of criminal cases that have nothing to do with protecting America from foreign threats. There had been some attempts to get some warrant demands in the bill, but as surveillance expert Marcy Wheeler has noted, the law was worded so that it applies only if you're a suspect of a crime. That is to say, people suspected of criminal activity have greater privacy protections under the law than those who just have their data and communications snatched up en masse.

The American Civil Liberties Union is not thrilled. A response from Neema Singh Guliani, their policy counsel:

"The House voted today to give President Trump and his administration more spying powers. The government will use this bill to continue warrantless intrusions into Americans' private emails, text messages, and other communications.

"No president should have this power. Yet, members of Congress just voted to hand it to an administration that has labeled individuals as threats based merely on their religion, nationality, or viewpoints. The Senate should reject this bill and rein in government surveillance powers to bring Section 702 in line with the Constitution."

Now the reauthorization goes to the Senate, where Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have sponsored the Senate version of the USA RIGHTS Act. They have both already tweeted their responses to what happened in the House today:

It's filibuster time! Clearly Paul and others need to try to book some time on Fox and Friends and try to convince President Donald Trump to switch his position back to opposing domestic surveillance.

This post was corrected to fix Rep. Zoe Lofgren's party affiliation.