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.

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  1. Let’s hope this isn’t yet another case where the people in power care only about whether they are the ones being surveilled.

    Let’s all hold our breath. If nothing else, doing so may stop the Coronavirus.

    1. Please continue to keep holding your breath. Let’s end that nasty oxygen habit you have.

    2. More like, “the people in power care only that they ARE the ones being surveyed, and don’t want the fruits of that surveillance released.”

  2. >>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

    same team, different mouthpieces …

  3. Look, if you have nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear. What have the little people got to worry about? They’re little people, they’ve got nothing even worth hiding. Government officials on the other hand, know full well what they’ve got that’s worth hiding and that’s exactly why they fear.

    1. If you have nothing to hide, you have wasted your life.

      1. You make a valid point, Unicorn. We ALL have parts of our lives we’d rather not have examined in public.

  4. the attorney general will have to sign off on any secret surveillance warrant applications that target federal officials or federal candidates for office

    “, unless, of course, the attorney general is the federal official being targeted.”

    1. How does this attorney general sign off fix anything? Partisans will still be partisans. And what happened to the Trump campaign would have still happened to the Trump campaign because the AG was from the other party at the time.

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  5. Some excuse can and will ALWAYS be found for bureaucratic aggrandizement.

  6. So, about 2/3 of the House are aware that they’re vulnerable to blackmail, while a third are clean enough to not care if they piss off the NSA? That’s actually a better percentage than I would have guessed.

    1. Of course, it just passed the House by a veto proof majority. If it does as well in the Senate, there’s no way for Trump to block it.

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  9. POTUS Trump should veto this FISA extension. The FBI committed grave misconduct, lied to the court, attempted to influence an election, as well as hobble an elected president, post-election. Sorry, but that kind of thing is a mortal threat to our Republic.

    At the very least, the FISA court should be abolished. And the FBI de-funded drastically. The conduct of FISA court judges, with their 99%+ rulings in favor of the government is utterly shameful. Like they didn’t know they were being lied to? No judge on the FISA court ever stopped and said to his colleagues…You know, we are finding in favor of the government 99% of the time; do you think that could be a problem? That is amazing to me. I hope that Chief Justice Roberts is quietly looking into this, because this kind of conduct truly calls into question our judiciary.

    1. Yes, all these things should happen, and none of them will happen, because we let the surveillance state progress too far, and it’s got those in ‘power’ by the short and curlies.

  10. Trump should veto this bill.
    After all, he has been targeted by the FISA court.
    Secret courts are absolutely un-American.

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