Just hours before the House was set to vote on reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the morning after a White House statement had voiced support for the legislation, President Trump took to Twitter to assail the act, which he said may have been used during the Obama administration to surveil members of the Trump campaign.
“House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,” he tweeted. “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?”
As former FBI Director James Comey’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election heated up last spring, Trump lashed out, accusing former President Obama of illegally “wiretapping” Trump Tower.
The president’s claims were unsubstantiated and prompted members of the intelligence communities in the U.S. and abroad to issue denials.
In an uncharacteristic public statement last spring, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the NSA, responded to claims by former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that it was involved in surveillance of Trump at Obama’s behest.
During the course of the Russian collusion probe, however, investigators seemed to acknowledge that some people in the president’s orbit had been under surveillance for their suspicious dealings with Russia and other countries.
The Senate Judiciary Committee in the spring asked the Justice Department and the FBI to hand over any FISA-related material related to the investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election – and the probe of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) applications and responses.
The hotly debated Section 702 authorizations of the act were set to expire at the end of 2017, but with Congress divided on how much authority to give government and rights groups challenging proposed legislation, the deadline was extended to give Congress time to hammer out an agreement. Opponents have slapped at the current House bill for allowing warrantless surveillance.
“We strongly oppose this legislation,” Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU legislative counsel, said in a statement earlier in the week. “This bill is not reform by any stretch of the imagination. It leaves the door wide open to abusive surveillance practices that allow the government to search the intimate emails, text messages, and other sensitive data of Americans without a warrant of any kind.”
Congress also will vote Thursday on a bipartisan amendment intended to set parameters on spying. A White House statement released late Wednesday spurned the amendment and called for Congress to “reject this amendment and preserve the useful role of FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives,” according to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“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,” said Sanders.
Trump tweeted his seeming reservations about FISA after “Fox & Friends” ran a piece on the upcoming House vote that had shown contributor Judge Andrew Napolitano, saying, “Mr. President, this is not the way to go. Spying is valid to find the foreign agents among us. But it’s got to be based on suspicion and not an area code.”
Shortly after his first tweet, Trump followed up with a clarification. “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,” he tweeted. “We need it! Get smart!”
The president’s contradictory tweets and divergence from the White House’s messaging prompted Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to take to the House floor to “reluctantly” push back the vote until lawmakers could further divine what the president’s posture is.
“In light of the significant concerns that have been raised by members of our caucus, and in light of the irresponsible and inherently contradictory messages coming out of the White House today,” Schiff said, “I would recommend that we withdraw consideration of the bill today, to give us more time to address the privacy questions that have been raised, as well as to get a clear statement from the administration about their position on the bill.”
But later in the morning, the House went on to pass the bill. “As a former federal prosecutor who used foreign intelligence surveillance to bring terrorists to justice, I’m grateful we were able to renew this critical law enforcement tool for six more years,” Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, said in a statement. “While this bill contains some changes I did not feel were necessary, I recognize that it’s the culmination of an extensive and transparent legislative process that included input from legislators all across the political spectrum and from the White House and Executive Branch alike.”
Saying that “the tools we just reauthorized are critical for the safety of our homeland,” Ratcliffe claimed “they have successfully stopped terrorists like Hajji Iman and thwarted planned attacks like the 2009 attempted New York City Subway bombing.”
He urged the Senate “not to play politics with national security and to send this bill to the president’s desk as quickly as possible.”
The ACLU said the bill expands the administration’s surveillance authority. “The House voted today to give President Trump and his administration more spying powers,” said Singh Giuliani. “The government will use this bill to continue warrantless intrusions into Americans’ private emails, text messages, and other communications.”
She noted that “no president should have this power,” particularly the Trump administration, which “has labeled individuals as threats based merely on their religion, nationality, or viewpoints.”
Contending that “mass government surveillance makes all of us less safe” and a reauthorization of “ineffective and illegal spying powers,” Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, said the act is “a nightmare for all those who believe in basic liberty, due process, and freedom of expression.”
Singh Giuliani called on the Senate to “reject this bill and rein in government surveillance powers to bring Section 702 in line with the Constitution.”
And Greer echoed the sentiment, calling for “the Senate to listen to security experts, civil liberties advocates, and the majority of voters from both parties, and vote to stop these illegal and dangerous government spying programs.”
But the Senate took its first steps Thursday toward passing the bill and will likely vote on it next week.