The White House took a formal position yesterday opposing any reforms to federal foreign surveillance law that would restrict its use against American citizens on domestic soil. Here's the White House's brief statement, in full:
The Administration strongly opposes the "USA Rights" amendment to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, which the House will consider tomorrow. This amendment would re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11 in order to increase information sharing and improve our national security. The Administration urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA's Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives.
That's a clear statement supporting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and opposing new restrictions on federal surveillance power.
Here's what President Donald Trump, ostensibly the man whose positions these White House statements represent, tweeted this morning:
"House votes on controversial FISA ACT today." This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
That first tweet appeared less than an hour after Andrew Napolitano appeared on Fox & Friends urging the president not to support FISA's renewal and saying that FISA surveillance is what's being used to snoop on and attack the president (Via Matthew Gertz):
During the segment, after claiming that Trump's "woes began" with "surveillance of him," Andrew Napolitano literally turns to the camera and says, "Mr. President, this is not the way to go." pic.twitter.com/W8NrtDDP3I— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 11, 2018
That tweet sat there this morning for a good two hours, causing a lot of head-tilting for those of us who have been following the FISA saga. After two hours (and, I'm assuming, at least one frustrated conversation with Chief of Staff John Kelly), the president walked back his own tweet and called for Section 702's renewal:
With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today's vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
That's not actually what today's vote is about. The bill House and Senate leaders are trying to push through would actually expand the Section 702 snooping authorities so that they can be used on Americans, secretly, for domestic purposes, without having to get a warrant.
Lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) are trying to amend the law with the USA RIGHTS Act, to make sure that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency cannot abuse Section 702 to collect and store communications from Americans and then use them in court cases without getting warrants. The amendment they (and other co-sponsors) are proposing does not stop or hinder the use of Section 702 when it's used the way it's supposed to be used: to keep track of foreign targets.
Trump's rather contradictory responses inadvertently highlights an attitude very common to politically powerful people. Trump clearly cares only about the abuse of surveillance authority to the extent that it affects him. He doesn't care if the feds snoop on you or me. We might be harboring illegal immigrants or something.
He's not the first politician to have this attitude. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is a massive fan of the surveillance state and wants to force tech companies to have encryption backdoors. Nevertheless, she was shocked to discover that the CIA had snooped on her staff when they were hammering out a report on the use of torture during the Iraq war.
Then there's a 16-year-old story from Willamette Week that suddenly went viral this past weekend. Drug warriors in Portland, Oregon, were insisting they had the authority to search people's trash without warrants. So Willamette Week went through the trash of city leaders and published the contents. City leaders did not like that.
Fortunately, there's a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who do care about whether secret unwarranted surveillance is used against American citizens. We'll see if they get their way with Section 702 renewal today when (or if) a vote happens.
Bonus link: A year ago the FBI disclosed that agents used Section 702 to secretly access an American citizen's emails for reasons completely unrelated to foreign surveillance and without warrants to investigate a case of suspected child abuse within the United States. That's not what the law is supposed to be used for.
Photo Credit: Ting Shen/SIPA/Newscom