Corrected Dec. 8 | The House Intelligence Committee unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would renew a powerful spy authority, as Congress took steps to temporarily continue the program while lawmakers hammer out differences over privacy protections.
The committee vote to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the U.S. government to collect digital communications of foreigners located outside the country, comes just weeks before the authority expires at the end of the year.
But the program also sweeps up the communications of Americans and allows the FBI to search through data without a warrant using information such as an email address, and there are competing proposals for adding privacy protections.
The fiscal 2024 defense authorization conference report released late Wednesday includes a clean extension of the spy authority through April 19, which would be the new deadline for Congress to arrive on a deal.
Privacy-focused lawmakers had criticized such a short-term reauthorization as unnecessary and a “inexcusable violation” of the public’s trust. But there were few working days remaining before the law would expire, which U.S. officials said would harm national security.
Divisions were on display this week, as the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee advanced different reauthorization bills.
In a letter on Thursday, House Speaker Mike Johnson said he plans to bring both measures to the floor next week under a special rule that allows members a “fair opportunity” to vote for their preferred measure.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday they will work in good faith on a final bill that can be passed by Congress early next year.
The Senate leaders in a joint statement said changing FISA authorities “to prevent abuse while ensuring our ability to defend our nation” was a bicameral and bipartisan priority.
Intelligence vs. Judiciary bills
The bill approved Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee would restrict the number of FBI personnel who are authorized to approve U.S. person searches, create new penalties for leaking of FISA-derived information and prohibit searches aimed at suppressing the political opinions of Americans, according to the committee.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, said the bill contains dozens of changes and includes provisions aimed at addressing issues with the FBI’s querying features and the lack of transparency with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
He also drew attention to the threat landscape facing America’s national security interests, pointing to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
“FISA is our best weapon to combat the threats we face today and in the future. The American people are looking for us to keep them safe,” Turner said.
The Intelligence panel bill would reauthorize Section 702 for eight years and would implement a prohibition on the FBI conducting searches of Section 702 information solely designed to find evidence of criminal activity that is unrelated to national security. Privacy advocates argue that provision only encompasses a small fraction of the searches.
Those provisions sharply differ from the House Judiciary Committee, which on Wednesday voted on legislation that would renew Section 702 for three more years and would insert a robust warrant requirement when it comes to information on Americans, with certain exceptions.
Those exemptions include situations where there’s an emergency involving an “imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm,” and situations in which a “cybersecurity threat signature” is used as a search term to prevent harm from malicious software.
House Intelligence members teed off on the House Judiciary measure on Thursday.
“The reforms coming out of the Judiciary Committee are downright terrifying,” said Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, R-Texas, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Privacy-focused lawmakers say the searches on American data are a form of warrantless surveillance and are in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. The changes in the Judiciary bill, Crenshaw said, would equate to the police having to get a warrant to run a license plate on a speeding driver.
Crenshaw said authorities can access databases with information they have lawfully.
“I don’t know if the people proposing these reforms understand that,” he said. “I do know that they’ve never done my job to try and find terrorists and pull on those threads of information in order to find those terrorists. I do know that they’ve never done that and know how difficult it actually is.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said the House Judiciary bill “essentially abolishes” the spy authority.
“It would completely undermine our national security, and it would pose a major threat to world peace and world order. That’s how serious I feel this is,” he said.
This report has been corrected to accurately reflect a provision in legislation advanced by the House Intelligence Committee.