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US House Approves Renewal of Anti-terror Surveillance Law

By Ken Bredemeier January 11, 2018

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to renew a key surveillance law the U.S. uses to thwart foreign terrorists plotting attacks against Americans.

The lawmakers voted 256-164 for the critical national security measure, but passage of the legislation was thrown in doubt when U.S. President Donald Trump suggested in an early-morning Twitter remark, without any supporting evidence, that the law might have been used to eavesdrop on his 2016 election campaign, seeming to signal his opposition to the law's renewal.

But an hour-and-a-half-later, Trump tweeted his support, saying, it "is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!"

The program, part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows U.S. spy agencies, including the National Security Agency, to collect texts and emails of foreigners overseas without authorization, even when they are communicating with Americans.

Some lawmakers had voiced concern about the scope of the law because the conversations of Americans not suspected of planning a terrorist attack can be inadvertently swept up in the eavesdropping.

The House-approved legislation calling for a six-year renewal still must clear the Senate before Trump can sign it into law. It requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country's top criminal investigative agency, to get a search warrant if it wants to read the content of Americans' conversations caught up in the surveillance.

But the House rejected, on a 233-183 vote, more stringent restrictions on the FBI that would have required it to get a warrant even when it started its search of the surveillance database when Americans might be involved.

Seen as valuable tool

FBI Director Christopher Wray says the law is a valuable tool for the U.S. in fighting terrorism. Officials in recent years have cited evidence they collected from the surveillance as giving law enforcement agencies the information they need to stop prospective terrorist attacks.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said that in March 2016, the eavesdropping "gave us the intelligence we needed to go after and kill ISIS's finance minister. Because of the intelligence collected under this program, a foreign terrorist on foreign soil, the number two man at ISIS, who was in line to become the next leader. This program helped us get the information to stop him."

Ryan said in another instance, the surveillance allowed U.S. officials to thwart a 2009 attempt to blow up New York's subway system. He said the surveillance was used "to understand what people were planning overseas and what they were trying to do here in America, so that we could connect the dots and stop that particular terrorist attack," Ryan said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, called the House passage of the measure "a big step to ensure the continuation of one of the intelligence community's most vital tools for tracking foreign terrorists. This bill also provides new, rigorous measures to protect Americans' privacy and to ensure the program is used properly to target foreign terrorists, weapons proliferators, and other threats to Americans' safety and security."

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