House to Attempt to Pass Spy Bill Without Treading Coattails

WASHINGTON (CN) – House Republicans will attempt to reauthorize a controversial surveillance program that allows the government to collect foreign intelligence on U.S. soil without attaching it to any spending bills or other must-pass legislation.

The high-stakes plan, according to GOP lawmakers who attended a conference meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan Tuesday morning, is to release one reauthorization bill that combines recommendations previously endorsed by the House and Senate Intelligence committees, and the House Judiciary Committee.

The decision to handle reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as a separate item comes amid outcry from a handful of Senate Republicans, including Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.

Both Rand and Lee warned Tuesday that their support for any short-term spending bill to keep the government open beyond next week would only be granted if permanent reauthorization was taken off the table and renewal wasn’t rammed through without debate.

Section 702, which was adopted in 2008 and renewed in 2012, grants intelligence agencies the ability to collect “foreign intelligence that is vital to protect the nation against international terrorism and other threats.”

The program is regularly blasted by Democrats as well as privacy and civil rights advocates. They contend Section 702 is a thinly-veiled domestic spy program that tramples the Constitutional rights of ordinary, law-abiding Americans.

On Tuesday, Sen. Paul dismissed the idea of a permanent reauthorization, saying the intelligence community needed “more oversight, not less.”

Sen. Lee agreed, saying, “a permanent reauthorization of Section 702 would be completely unacceptable.”

Section 702 will expire on December 31 unless Congress acts.

Paul and Lee share common ground with democratic Sens. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, and Patrick Leahy, of Vermont.

Both Wyden and Leahy have long opposed permanent reauthorization. Republican Sen. Steve Daines, of Montana, has also called for short-term renewal only.

Wyden and Paul aren’t strangers to collaboration. The lawmakers cosponsored a Section 702 reform bill, the USA Rights Act, in October. That legislation specifically called for an end to backdoor searches on Americans.

“[The CIA and the NSA conduct] more than 5,000 searches for the content of Americans’ communications and more than 30,000 for metadata,” Wyden wrote for Just Security, a New York University-affiliated think tank.

“Opponents of reform also fail to mention that the FBI’s backdoor searches, which it refuses to even count, can be conducted for evidence of a crime or for foreign intelligence unrelated to terrorism, or that the results of those searches can be used by the government for purposes that have nothing to do with national security,” he continued.

The legislation has since stalled.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes, of California, would not only reauthorize the surveillance program through 2021, but would also increase the power granted to intelligence agencies.

Nunes’ bill redefines statutory terms like “foreign power” and “agent of foreign power” to include cyber-related activities deemed a national security threat.

In a possible combination bill, like Sen. Ryan suggested Tuesday, lawmakers would be tasked with balancing three different proposed revisions.

In addition to a change of terms in Section 702, the House Intelligence Committee’s bill also creates a new hurdle for the FBI: agents must first obtain a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before conducting a search on a “known United States person.”

The House Judiciary Committee’s proposed legislation goes a step further and demands the FBI, in criminal cases, obtain a warrant before even viewing a single query on an American whose information may be in the National Security Agency database.

This would not apply to counterterrorism or counterintelligence cases, however.

Regardless  of the hurdles, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Tuesday it fully expects Section 702 to survive.

“If Congress did not reauthorize the FISA Amendments Act by year-end, Section 404(b) of that statute makes very clear that ‘any order, authorization, or directive issued or made under title VII of [FISA] … shall continue in effect until the date of the expiration of such order, authorization, or directive,’” the office said in a statement.

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