House Votes to Tighten Oversight of Federal Surveillance

Both Republicans and Democrats in the House seek to ensure that civil liberties are not overwhelmed by the tools used to thwart terrorism and other crimes

In this file photo, Attorney General William Barr speaks about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report during a news conference, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Department of Justice in Washington.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Congress has taken a first step toward addressing errors made by the FBI during its investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia, with the House passing legislation Wednesday that would impose new restrictions on the federal government's surveillance tools.

The legislation is a compromise that reflects angst in both parties about the way the surveillance powers have been used, but also a reluctance to strip those powers from the government's arsenal. The bipartisan bill, negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, would renew several provisions the FBI sees as vital to fighting terrorism even as it aims to ensure stricter oversight of how the bureau conducts surveillance.

The compromise, which passed 278-136, came after Republicans and Democrats in the House broadly agreed that they did not want civil liberties sacrificed in efforts to thwart terrorism and other crimes. Republicans had been aggressively seeking changes to the law since the Russia investigation, while many Democrats already had concerns about government surveillance.

The Senate is poised to pass the bill, as well, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement with several other Republicans saying they “strongly support this legislation and urge all of our Senate colleagues to join us.”

The statement said the legislation “balances the need to reauthorize these critical authorities with the need for tailored reforms to increase accountability." Signing on with McConnell were Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, Texas Sen. John Cornyn and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.

It was not immediately clear whether Trump would sign it. And a handful of Republican and Democratic senators have strongly criticized the House measure, possibly threatening procedural delays.

Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, all longtime skeptics of surveillance laws, are opposed to the legislation. But Wyden indicated he would not filibuster, or delay, the bill, saying he was focused on a response to the spread of the coronavirus.

It wasn't certain what tactics Paul or Lee might use to slow down the legislation. Lee said Wednesday that “there are a lot of procedural tools at our disposal," indicating he might try to delay passage. Paul has been working closely with Trump, who told Republican lawmakers at a meeting last week that he would not sign an extension of the current surveillance authorities without reforms.

Lawmakers leave town at week's end. The existing powers expire Sunday.

At the behest of Republicans, the House compromise takes aim at some of the missteps the Justice Department has acknowledged making during the Russia investigation. Applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide were riddled with omissions and missteps, according to an inspector general report.

The measure would require that officers responsible for FISA applications certify that the department has been advised of any information that could undercut or contradict the premise of the surveillance. In the Russia investigation, some of the information the FBI omitted from its applications cut against the idea that former Trump adviser Carter Page was a Russian agent, the watchdog found.

Page has denied that and was never charged with wrongdoing.

The bill also would institute criminal penalties and other sanctions for making false statements to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which issues warrants to the FBI to eavesdrop on people it has probable cause to believe are agents of a foreign power. It would require the attorney general to approve in writing of an investigation if the target of the surveillance is a federal candidate or official.

The legislation updates the three expiring surveillance provisions, including one that permits the FBI to obtain court orders to collect business records on subjects in national security investigations. Another, known as the “roving wiretap” provision, permits surveillance on subjects even after they’ve changed phones. The third allows agents to monitor subjects who don’t have ties to international terrorism organizations.

Attorney General William Barr was involved in the negotiations with the White House and Congress, and he said Wednesday that he supports the bill.

“It is of the utmost important that the Department’s attorneys and investigators always work in a manner consistent with the highest professional standards, and this overall package will help ensure the integrity of the FISA process and protect against future abuses going forward," Barr said.

Some conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats said the compromise did not go far enough.

Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, the heads of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that “Congress can and must do more to protect civil liberties" and announced they would oppose the bill. Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona said he would also oppose it, asserting that it would allow the government to spy on Americans.

But other Republicans who have advocated for change said they would support it. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a close ally of Trump's, said the bill is “a start” that would improve civil liberties. McCarthy called the compromise “a turning point.”

House Democrats who control the chamber said they would continue to work on revising the authorities. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, one of the bill's sponsors, said Congress still has “a long way to go” on reforms.


AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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