Civil Liberties

Republicans Love Federal Snooping

(Unless it's against Trump).


Binu Omanakkuttan/

President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers in Congress insist that the president and his aides were inappropriately snooped on by politically motivated federal intelligence officials during the 2016 election. Yet when given the opportunity to scale back the FBI's power to secretly engage in domestic surveillance of American citizens, the president and the GOP did not take advantage of it. In fact, they did the opposite.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments was scheduled to sunset at the end of 2017 unless Congress renewed it. That provision authorizes the federal government to poke into communications of foreign targets, overseen by a secret court. While these powers are supposed to be used only to collect foreign intelligence and fight terrorism overseas, domestic communications also get quietly vacuumed up. Because these communications are typically collected without a warrant, there is reason for significant concern about privacy violations.

Surveillance officials are supposed to mask the identifying information of any Americans, but civil rights advocates warn that these powers are actually being used to collect evidence in wholly domestic cases, circumventing the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Their fears were bolstered by Edward Snowden's disclosure that the government is storing massive amounts of data from Americans' email accounts and phones.

As Congress prepared to renew Section 702, a bipartisan coalition of concerned lawmakers demanded reforms. One bill—introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D–Ore.) and Reps. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) and Zoe Lofgren (D–Calif.), among others—would have required officials to get a warrant to access Americans' communications or data, except in very limited emergency circumstances. The bill was supported by groups from across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union and FreedomWorks.

Although Trump and Republican allies like Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Calif.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, say the FBI broke the rules to engage in surveillance against members of Trump's campaign, they resisted the chance to fix the underlying problem. In January, Nunes and 177 other GOP legislators voted against the bill to restrict domestic snooping, then advanced and passed a different bill to renew Section 702. Rather than scaling back domestic surveillance powers, the legislation expanded them, explicitly permitting the FBI to use foreign surveillance rules to fight domestic crimes.