Hill pushes spy bill renewal to January, but a bitter debate still looms

The U.S. Capitol.


By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 22, 2017

WASHINGTON — Congress voted Thursday to give itself an extra three weeks to settle bitter differences over how to reauthorize one of the government's most prized foreign intelligence-gathering tools, but the last-minute move has done little to reconcile competing concerns about the need to maintain powerful spy capabilities and Americans' right to privacy.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are united over how to limit the authority to conduct foreign surveillance on U.S. soil, particularly when it comes to the question of when law enforcement officials can scour the collected surveillance for information about Americans.

Privacy advocates in both parties have been in a months-long dispute with national security hawks over whether law enforcement officials should have to obtain warrants or simply clear procedural hurdles before viewing Americans' communications collected under the program. And even with more time to talk, few seem ready to abandon their principled positions in the new year.

Lawmakers approved a short-term extension of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008 with little fanfare this week, after a frenzied but failed push to rally support for a longer-term measure that would have modified how law enforcement officials search a database of collected information for Americans' communications.

House GOP members of the Freedom Caucus huddled with senior members of the Intelligence Committee in the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Wednesday to try to reconcile their differences. When they went in, the House's plan was to vote on a measure written by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., that would have required the FBI to obtain a court order before viewing the contents of Americans' communications found in the database that they hope to use in criminal cases.

But that idea was scrapped as Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., proclaimed that no long-term extension would get through Congress at this juncture.

Resolving the Section 702 debate before the statutory end-of-year deadline became less of a priority as Congress focused on more politically charged debates around health care and tax reform. Three committees endorsed proposals in the past several weeks — but only leaders of the House Intelligence Committee seemed satisfied with the long-term proposal that was floated, and then rejected, days ago.

Nunes said this week that his proposal would probably be the structure for whatever deal lawmakers strike to extend Section 702 in the new year, predicting that several House Democrats would vote for the measure. The restrictions in his bill were first proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also said Thursday that GOP leaders expect Democrats' votes will be necessary to passing a Section 702 reauthorization in the new year.

But it is not clear that, absent changes, the House Judiciary Committee members will be fully on board. Last month, that panel endorsed a proposal that would have required a warrant to view the results of queries for Americans' communications. One congressional aide warned that the Judiciary Committee would have been "near-unanimous in its opposition" to the Nunes bill that was proposed, but not considered, this past week.

The Senate's concerns, meanwhile, go in the opposite direction. There, the most restrictive proposal to have earned the support of the Intelligence Committee imposed only a procedural hurdle requiring the FBI to have the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court weigh in on the legality of any query for information on a "known United States person."On the other end of the political spectrum, privacy advocates such as Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are primed to fight the issue on the floor.

The short-term extension of Section 702's statutory authority expires Jan. 19. With the House not returning to Capitol Hill until Jan. 8, lawmakers will have just a handful of legislative days to work out long-simmering differences.

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