Over Objections From Privacy Advocates, Tame Surveillance Bill Sails Through the House

Some Republican senators are working hard to get Trump behind stronger fixes.


It took all of a day after the text was released for the House of Representatives to vote for a surveillance reform and reauthorization bill that privacy groups (and some members of Congress) say doesn't go nearly far enough.

On Tuesday evening, Reps. Jerry Nadler (D–N.Y.) and Adam Schiff (D–Calif.) released the text of the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act. On Wednesday evening, it sailed through the House by a vote of 278–136.

The bill renews but revises the USA Freedom Act, which was passed in 2015 after Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had secretly been collecting and storing massive amounts of Americans' phone and internet records. The USA Freedom Act was a compromise between those who pointed out these acts violated Americans' privacy and Fourth Amendment rights and those who insisted the United States needed the info to fight terrorism. The law allowed the NSA and FBI to access these collected records under more strict guidelines and authorized the use of roving wiretaps to keep track of "lone wolf" terrorists.

The USA Freedom Act sunsets this weekend, and privacy activists on both the left and the right have used the opportunity to push for stronger protections from secret surveillance and unwarranted data collection.

Last night's vote suggests we will not see tougher reforms. The bill does include some milder (but nevertheless welcome) changes. It ends the records retention program entirely—not as big a deal as it might sound, since the NSA has already abandoned it. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendment (FISA) Court will have modestly expanded powers to bring in outside advisers when the feds want a warrant and to review decisions. And the attorney general will have to sign off on any secret surveillance warrant applications that target federal officials or federal candidates for office. But the bill does not grant civil libertarians' demands for limits on how business records can be secretly collected and used, for stronger protections against secret surveillance of First Amendment–protected activities, and for a stronger role for those outside advisers.

The vote did not follow party lines. There is a consistent group of Democrats and Republicans who support strong privacy and Fourth Amendment protections, even if they don't see eye to eye on most other issues. Among the 60 Republicans who voted against the limper reforms were Louis Gohmert of Texas, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, and Tom McClintock of California. Among the 75 Democrats who voted no were Zoe Lofgren of California, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ted Lieu of California, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Independent Justin Amash of Michigan also voted against the bill.

But they're the minority. The larger, more establishment-minded leadership of Congress seems fine with kicking the can down the road yet again (the law will sunset once more in 2023) and reforming as little as they can get away with.

One of the more notable "yea" votes comes from Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Calif.). A vocal defender of the president, Nunes has long insisted that the feds and the FISA Court abused their powers when they snooped on Trump aide Carter Page. (Subsequent investigation shows he was right to be concerned.) Nunes has even gone so far as to call for the entire FISA Court to be dismantled. Yet when it came time to vote, he, like he has done historically, voted to preserve the wider surveillance authorities.

This bill wouldn't have done anything to stop the FBI from wiretapping Page. He was neither a candidate for office nor a federal official at the time. But it will make it harder for the feds to wiretap Nunes.

The legislation heads over to the Senate now, where Rand Paul (R–Ky.) is trying to use his influence over Trump to stop the bill and demand stronger reforms. A tweet from Trump suggests Paul has the president's ear:

We went through this once before. That time, Trump wound up approving legislation that actually expanded the feds' authority to secretly spy on American citizens. Let's hope this isn't yet another case where the people in power care only about whether they are the ones being surveilled.