WASHINGTON - U.S. lawmakers debated a controversial set of surveillance authorizations Wednesday, with the threat of a presidential veto looming over their efforts to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The FISA bill, which had passed the Republican-majority U.S. Senate earlier this month in a bipartisan 80-16 vote, faced new challenges when the Democratic-majority U.S. House added amendments. Those changes caused the U.S. Department of Justice to withdraw support for the bill Wednesday, threatening a veto from U.S 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 in the course of collections.
At issue is an amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden that was defeated by just one vote in the U.S. Senate but added by Democratic Rep. 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 from 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 has 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.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced Republicans would oppose the Wednesday vote, 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.
McCarthy predicted that even if the bill passed the House, “it won't be signed into law, the president has questions, the attorney general has questions, the senators themselves disagree with it.”
Progressive Democrats also reportedly have concerns about the legislation, spelling trouble for the bill attaining the numbers needed for passage.
Republican Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a former federal defense lawyer, echoed concerns in his party but said legislation could only go so far to stop abuses.
“There is no procedural thing that we can do that will stop that,” Armstrong said Wednesday in a hearing preparing the legislation for a vote. “We can pass all these reforms. We can leave it the way it is, but nothing is going to change until we get to a situation where we have people who, quite frankly, have more humility, have more of a public servant’s heart, a little less prosecutorial or law enforcement hubris.”