The Jan. 19 signing of legislation to reauthorize a government surveillance authority that has, in some cases, given intelligence and law enforcement agents access to Americans’ correspondence without a warrant, was a victory for security hawks over civil libertarians.
It also marked a win for the House Intelligence Committee over its counterpart, House Judiciary, and a shift in the balance of power on government surveillance from three years ago.
This time around, Judiciary Committee members were deeply divided on reauthorizing the surveillance power that Congress granted in 2008, and that gave the Intelligence panel, which favors broader powers, an edge.
The 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allow government agents to read emails and text messages in which foreign terrorist suspects are mentioned or involved.
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It became controversial in 2013 when Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, revealed that the agency was sometimes scooping up Americans’ messages in the dragnet.
Last November, with the power set to expire on Dec. 31, the Judiciary Committee tried to strike a compromise between civil libertarians and security hawks, approving a bill sponsored by both its Republican chairman, Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, and ranking Democrat, Jerrold Nadler of New York. The committee voted 27-8 to approve the bill, which would have scaled back the government’s surveillance powers by requiring law enforcement agents to get a warrant if they wanted to use texts or emails in a criminal case.
But when the House voted earlier this month, it was on a different measure, devised by the Intelligence Committee’s GOP chairman, Devin Nunes of California, and top Democrat, Adam B. Schiff of California, that extends the government’s surveillance powers for six years with minimal changes.
Judiciary Republicans split on it 15-8, with Goodlatte supporting the Nunes-Schiff bill while civil libertarians like Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin dissented.
Democrats on Judiciary overwhelmingly opposed the bill, voting 3-13 against.
Meanwhile, Intelligence Committee members voted 19-3 in favor with Republicans united, 13-0 and Democrats in support 6-3.
The dynamics were far different in 2015 when the Judiciary Committee led the way in restricting government authority, granted in the 2001 Patriot Act, to collect data (but not content) about every phone call made by an American.
Then, the House took up and passed overwhelmingly the Judiciary bill, which required government agents to give up their database of phone call data. Judiciary members voted 32-6 in favor. Five of the six dissenters were Republicans who felt the overhaul didn’t do enough to protect civil liberties.
After voicing concerns, Intelligence Committee members voted for the Judiciary bill en masse, perhaps in acknowledgment of its overwhelming support.
Civil liberties advocates in the Senate then forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to accept the House bill over the objections of Senate Intelligence Committee members.
President Donald Trump signed the measure into law on Friday.