Brushing aside confusing tweets from President Trump, the House voted Thursday to renew the government’s most important intelligence collection tool after adding some new protections for Americans whose communications get picked up in the dragnet.
A bipartisan coalition of defense and security hawks powered through the bill over objections from liberals and conservatives who said the new bill still lets Americans’ communications be searched in some cases without a warrant.
Congress is rushing against a Jan. 19 deadline to renew the powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is chiefly aimed at collection of the contents of phone calls, emails and other communications of foreign targets overseas. Without action, the 702 powers and the intelligence it produces goes away.
“The consequences are really high,” warned House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “We go dark.”
He and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both backed the renewal bill — though Mr. Ryan was more successful than Mrs. Pelosi in convincing their troops.
The 256-164 vote saw four in five Republicans support the bill, while just a third of Democrats did.
The legislation now heads to the Senate where the bill cleared a first test vote Thursday afternoon, 69-26. A final vote will happen next week — though senators will have to overcome a filibuster from Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican.
He and other civil-liberties advocates say that while targets for 702 collection must be foreigners overseas, Americans can be snared if they are talking with those targets.
In previous iterations of the program they could even be snared in “abouts” collection — which is when the government scoops up communications that mention a target, even if he or she isn’t the sender or receiver.
The Amash alternative would also have permanently prohibited “abouts” collection, and the bill’s opponents said that Americans deserve better protections.
In the House, a coalition of liberals and conservatives pushed an alternative, sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican, that would have required a warrant before any federal law enforcement agency could sift through the data in non-terrorism cases.
“We have a debate today about whether to put the F back in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The F means foreign,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who wrote the original Patriot Act, who backed the Amash alternative.
Mr. Amash’s proposal was defeated 233-183, with both GOP and Democratic leaders saying they feared it would leave the FBI and other law enforcement agencies back in the dark, unable to learn critical information from intelligence agencies.
They said that would put the U.S. back where it was before the 2001 terrorist attacks, when “walls” prevented information sharing that authorities say might have helped stop the airplane attacks.
“It’s about where you strike the balance,” said Mrs. Pelosi, who pleaded with her members to renew the powers.
Thursday’s fight created very unusual coalitions.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who rarely finds common ground with Democrats on big issues, found himself praising Mrs. Pelosi for her support of the bill.
“You would see the color drain out of the faces of all of our security personnel … if we lost the ability and went dark on 702,” Mr. King said.
On the other side of the debate were some lawmakers who served in the military and said they fought to defend Americans’ rights against intrusive snooping.
“As a former Army Ranger I know the importance of section 702 in defeating the enemies of our country,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, Ohio Republican. “For American citizens, it is your data that is subject here.”
Since so much of the debate is about secret operations and complex legal issues, it’s tough to get a firm grasp on the full contours of the program and its collection.
Some lawmakers said the data collection is small, but others said it was a “huge amount.”
The government has said it’s impossible to determine how many Americans’ communications are snared — though it said in 2016 the NSA and CIA had more than 106,000 targets for its 702 collection, and searched nearly 5,300 U.S. person identifiers in the data.
The new bill reauthorizes 702 for six years, giving Congress a chance to come back in the future and revisit it. The intelligence community had wanted a permanent reauthorization.
Hours before the House vote, Mr. Trump seemed to undercut his intelligence agencies by saying FISA had been abused by the Obama administration.
“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” the president said on Twitter.
An hour later, Mr. Trump appeared to try to undo the damage, again taking to Twitter to insist he’d made unilateral changes to fix things.
“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!” the president tweeted.
He didn’t say what those changes are, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders pointed to an order Mr. Trump issued earlier this week demanding a new “unmasking” policy — governing how Americans’ names can be used when gathered in foreign intelligence.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates released the new policy Thursday morning, hours after Mr. Trump’s tweets and even as the House was in the middle of its debate.
The new policy said only top intelligence community chiefs “or their designees” can approve requests for Americans’ names to be attached to their communications, and those receiving the information must be identified by name or title.
Any requests for someone who’s part of a presidential transition team must be approved by the chief lawyer for the intelligence community.
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