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The House Intelligence Committee Blocks Crucial Surveillance Reforms

The powerful committee is making bad-faith moves to block efforts to protect Americans from government spying.

February 28, 2024

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) abruptly canceled a vote earlier this month on a bill to reauthorize and revise a controversial government spying authority after members of the House Intelligence Committee, fearing that the House would adopt amendments to protect Americans’ privacy, provoked national alarm about a Russian military capacity and backed out of a deal to bring the bill to the floor. Now Johnson must decide whether to reward this bad behavior by continuing to allow the committee to block votes on reform efforts, or worse, by attaching a renewal of the law without reforms to must-pass spending bills. Johnson should reject these paths — and honor the wishes of the American people — by immediately scheduling a vote on strong reform legislation: the House Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows intelligence agencies to collect the communications of non-Americans located abroad. But this surveillance inevitably sweeps in large volumes of Americans’ private phone calls, emails, and text messages, too. Ignoring a congressional directive to minimize the retention and use of this “incidentally” acquired information, intelligence agencies have repeatedly abused the law to spy on Americans without a warrant, including 141 Black Lives Matter protestersmembers of Congress, and 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign, among many others.

These abuses have caused bipartisan outrage in Congress, with members vowing not to reauthorize Section 702 when it expires in April without “significant reforms.” Recent polling shows that Americans overwhelmingly agree, with more than 75 percent backing the idea that the government should get a warrant before searching data acquired under Section 702 for Americans’ communications. 

The Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act meets the demand for serious surveillance reforms. It includes critical changes, such as requiring a warrant to search for Americans’ communications and prohibiting intelligence and law enforcement agencies from purchasing Americans’ sensitive information. These carefully crafted reforms, in combination with the bill’s reauthorization of Section 702, protect Americans’ privacy while ensuring the government retains the tools it needs to safeguard national security.

The Intelligence Committee’s FISA Reform and Reauthorization Act, by contrast, is a “reform” bill in name only. It would do nothing to prevent the worst abuses of Section 702 and would actually expand warrantless surveillance. The American Civil Liberties Union has said that the bill “would be the largest expansion of domestic government surveillance since the Patriot Act.” Civil rights group Color of Change deemed it “COINTELPRO 2.0.” 

The Judiciary Committee has primary jurisdiction over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which means that its bill ordinarily would be given priority. Afraid to alienate powerful Intelligence Committee members, however, Johnson initially tried to bring both bills to the floor using an obscure procedural maneuver called Queen of the Hill. After the Rules Committee refused to approve this arrangement, and with the December expiration date of Section 702 fast approaching, Johnson canceled the vote and worked with other congressional leaders to insert a four-month reauthorization of Section 702 into the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act late last year.

Johnson used the additional time to work with Republican members of the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees to develop what he described as a “compromise” bill. After weeks of negotiations, the two groups agreed to the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act. Although the bill was hardly a compromise — it was far closer, in substance, to the Intelligence Committee’s proposal — Judiciary Committee negotiators agreed to proceed with it provided each side would have an opportunity to offer amendments to bring the bill more in line with their preferences.

That’s when the mischief began. In an attempt to sway congressional sentiment in their favor before the scheduled vote, members of the Intelligence Committee disseminated information to all members of the House related to Russia’s desire to develop a space-based nuclear capability to attack American satellites. Chair Michael Turner (R-OH) issued a public call for President Biden to declassify information about what he termed a “serious national security threat.” Subsequent reporting revealed that there was no urgent threat, and the administration was “infuriated” because Turner’s statements may have compromised critical intelligence sources. But none of that mattered to the Intelligence Committee, which used the information to emphasize the importance of Section 702 by claiming that some of the intelligence about Russia’s program had been collected under this authority.

Despite this ploy, support for the Judiciary Committee’s amendments remained high in the House. Worried that members would vote for reforms the Intelligence Committee opposed, the committee got cold feet on the deal brokered by Johnson. It refused to submit its agreed-upon amendments and threatened to scuttle a procedural vote. Johnson caved, canceling the vote on the compromise bill in the middle of a Rules Committee hearing that would have advanced it to the floor. 

Reports indicate that Intelligence Committee members might now seek to have Section 702 reauthorized — without reforms — by including a renewal on one of the must-pass spending bills Congress will consider over the next two weeks. The goal is not to buy time; Congress has ample time to consider Section 702 before the April 19 sunset date. Rather, members of the House Intelligence Committee do not want their colleagues to have an opportunity to vote on meaningful surveillance reforms — a vote the surveillance hawks seem increasingly sure they would lose. To prevent such a vote from happening, committee members have abused their positions and reneged on an agreement brokered by the speaker’s office.

Johnson must not reward this bad-faith behavior by jamming Section 702 into any more must-pass bills. Instead, he should do now what he should have done from the beginning: schedule a floor vote on the Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act.