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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Nick Robins-Early

House votes to reapprove law allowing warrantless surveillance of US citizens

a white domed building with many windows
The Capitol dome in Washington DC in 2022. Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

House lawmakers voted on Friday to reauthorize section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or Fisa, including a key measure that allows for warrantless surveillance of Americans. The controversial law allows for far-reaching monitoring of foreign communications, but has also led to the collection of US citizens’ messages and phone calls.

Lawmakers voted 273–147 to approve the law, which the Biden administration has for years backed as an important counterterrorism tool. An amendment that would have required authorities seek a warrant failed, in a tied 212-212 vote across party lines.

Donald Trump opposed the reauthorization of the bill, posting to his Truth Social platform on Wednesday: “KILL FISA, IT WAS ILLEGALLY USED AGAINST ME, AND MANY OTHERS. THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN!!!”

The law, which gives the government expansive powers to view emails, calls and texts, has long been divisive and resulted in allegations from civil liberties groups that it violates privacy rights. House Republicans were split in the lead-up to vote over whether to reauthorize section 702, the most contentious aspect of the bill, with Mike Johnson, the House speaker, struggling to unify them around a revised version of the pre-existing law.

Republicans shot down a procedural vote on Wednesday that would have allowed Johnson to put the bill to a floor vote, in a further blow to the speaker’s ability to find compromise within his party. Following the defeat, the bill was changed from a five-year extension to a two-year extension of section 702 – an effort to appease far-right Republicans who believe Trump will be president by the time it expires.

Section 702 allows for government agencies such as the National Security Administration to collect data and monitor the communications of foreign citizens outside of US territory without the need for a warrant, with authorities touting it as a key tool in targeting cybercrime, international drug trafficking and terrorist plots. Since the collection of foreign data can also gather communications between people abroad and those in the US, however, the result of section 702 is that federal law enforcement can also monitor American citizens’ communications.

Section 702 has faced opposition before, but it became especially fraught in the past year after court documents revealed that the FBI had improperly used it almost 300,000 times – targeting racial justice protesters, January 6 suspects and others. That overreach emboldened resistance to the law, especially among far-right Republicans who view intelligence services like the FBI as their opponent.

Trump’s all-caps post further weakened Johnson’s position. Trump’s online remarks appeared to refer to an FBI investigation into a former campaign adviser of his, which was unrelated to section 702. Other far-right Republicans such as Matt Gaetz similarly vowed to derail the legislation, putting its passage in peril.

Meanwhile, the Ohio congressman Mike Turner, Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told lawmakers on Friday that failing to reauthorize the bill would be a gift to China’s government spying programs, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah.

“We will be blind as they try to recruit people for terrorist attacks in the United States,” Turner said on Friday on the House floor.

The California Democratic representative and former speaker Nancy Pelosi also gave a statement in support of passing section 702 with its warrantless surveillance abilities intact, urging lawmakers to vote against an amendment that would weaken its reach.

“I don’t have the time right now, but if members want to know I’ll tell you how we could have been saved from 9/11 if we didn’t have to have the additional warrants,” Pelosi said.

Debate over Section 702 pitted Republicans who alleged that the law was a tool for spying on American citizens against others in the GOP who sided with intelligence officials and deemed it a necessary measure to stop foreign terrorist groups. One proposed amendment called for requiring authorities to secure a warrant before using section 702 to view US citizens’ communications, an idea that intelligence officials oppose as limiting their ability to act quickly. Another sticking point in the debate was whether law enforcement should be prohibited from buying information on American citizens from data broker firms, which amass and sell personal data on tens of millions of people, including phone numbers and email addresses.

Section 702 dates back to the George W Bush administration, which secretly ran warrantless wiretapping and surveillance programs in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2008, Congress passed section 702 as part of the Fisa Amendments Act and put foreign surveillance under more formal government oversight. Lawmakers have renewed the law twice since, including in 2018 when they rejected an amendment that would have required authorities to get warrants for US citizens’ data.

Last year Merrick Garland, the attorney general, and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, sent a letter to congressional leaders telling them to reauthorize section 702. They claimed that intelligence gained from it resulted in numerous plots against the US being foiled, and that it was partly responsible for facilitating the drone strike that killed the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2022.

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