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House Democrats Withdraw Controversial Surveillance Authorization Bill

By Katherine Gypson May 28, 2020

U.S. House Democrats cancelled a scheduled vote on a controversial set of surveillance authorization measures Thursday, citing the threat of a presidential veto looming over their efforts to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

"The Administration – particularly some in the Justice Department – would like nothing better than to not have a bill," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Thursday. "Without a bill, there would be none of the bill's important protections for civil liberties. Without a bill, there would be all the leeway in the world not to protect Americans' privacy. Clearly, because House Republicans have prioritized politics over our national security."

But the FISA bill, which had passed the Republican-majority U.S. Senate earlier this month in a bipartisan 80-16 vote, faced challenges from both parties when the Democratic-majority U.S. House added amendments.

Changes in the House version caused the U.S. Department of Justice to withdraw support for the bill Wednesday, threatening a veto from President Donald Trump.

"Given the cumulative negative effect of these legislative changes on the Department's ability to identify and track terrorists and spies, the Department must oppose the legislation now under consideration in the House. If passed, the Attorney General would recommend that the President veto the legislation," Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said in a statement.

The law establishing procedures for surveillance of foreign powers or foreign agents has drawn criticism from defenders of civil liberties, who seek protections for American citizens who may be subject to unlawful searches.

At issue was an amendment by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden that was defeated by just one vote in the U.S. Senate but added by Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren in the version under consideration in the House.

"As the overwhelming bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate has demonstrated, Americans do not want the government looking at the websites they visit, the YouTube videos they watch and the internet searches they conduct without a warrant," Wyden said in a statement Tuesday applauding the addition of the Lofgren amendment.

"The House language protects U.S. persons with the same clear blanket prohibition provided by my Senate amendment. That means that it doesn't matter if the government specifically intends to collect U.S. person records or not. Nor does the government get to decide when it is 'reasonable' to believe it is not collecting U.S. person records. If the person whose web browsing or internet searches are of interest could be a U.S. person, the collection is prohibited."

The shift by the DOJ follows a Trump tweet Tuesday night calling on House Republicans to vote against the bill.

"I hope all Republican House Members vote NO on FISA until such time as our Country is able to determine how and why the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history took place!" Trump tweeted.

Trump has alleged the FISA program was used illegally to spy on members of his 2016 presidential campaign in a bid to prevent him from winning the presidency. He had already tweeted a veto threat relating to an earlier House-passed version of the bill this past March.

A DOJ investigation found last year the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had committed errors in its investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election, including mistakes in an application to put former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page under surveillance. However, the investigation did not find any evidence of political bias as Trump alleges.

"It was used for surveillance on Americans and every day we learn something more. Shouldn't we take an opportunity to correct that? Lo and behold the Speaker is now coming to the same position I told them would be best a couple of days ago," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Thursday.

McCarthy announced Republican opposition to the bill Wednesday, calling for more time to reach bipartisan consensus.

"I'm interested in making sure the FISA court has reformed and able to sustain itself, that it's looking at foreigners, not Americans," McCarthy told reporters Wednesday.

Progressive Democrats also reportedly had concerns about the legislation, spelling trouble for the bill attaining the numbers needed for passage.

Pelosi said Thursday lawmakers would continue to work on the legislation to insure it passes with a veto-proof majority.

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