House Pulls Surveillance Measure After Trump Tells Republicans to Vote No

House Pulls Surveillance Measure After Trump Tells Republicans to Vote No


House Democratic leaders on Thursday withdrew legislation that would revive expired F.B.I. tools to investigate terrorism and espionage and add privacy protections for Americans, after a fragile bipartisan compromise on the bill collapsed following an abrupt repudiation by President Trump.

The retreat left uncertain the fate of efforts to overhaul national-security surveillance while extending three partly expired tools that federal law enforcement officials use in such cases. Just days ago, the bill had appeared poised to become law, after initial approval by both the House and Senate.

But support for the measure among Republicans collapsed after Mr. Trump intervened to urge them to reject it, and progressives then said they could not support the bill without greater privacy protections. With votes bleeding from both flanks, House leaders delayed a vote late Wednesday and then called if off altogether on Thursday rather than let it fail.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had spent much of the last 24 hours trying to salvage the bill, said the House would instead initiate negotiations with the Senate to bridge their differences before attempting to clear the bill for Mr. Trump’s signature.

“Clearly, because House Republicans have prioritized politics over our national security, we will no longer have a bipartisan veto-proof majority,” she said in a letter to colleagues on Thursday morning announcing that the bill would be pulled back. “It will be our intention to go to conference in order to ensure that all of the views of all members of our caucus are represented in the final product.”

It is far from clear what the Trump administration wants. Mr. Trump himself has demonstrated little understanding of the complex details of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, and appears to be largely interested in keeping alive his grievances about the F.B.I. investigation into whether his campaign was involved with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

He tweeted on Tuesday that Republicans should oppose the legislation, “until such time as our Country is able to determine how and why the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history took place!” On Wednesday evening, ahead of the vote, he tweeted again with a promise to veto the measure if it passed.

A part of the Russia investigation included surveillance authorized by FISA that targeted Carter Page, a former campaign adviser with close ties to Moscow. An inspector general report later uncovered myriad errors and omissions in the applications for that wiretap, and Mr. Trump has sought undercut the legitimacy of the entire inquiry by citing the problematic surveillance.

But even as Mr. Trump vents his skepticism of the government surveillance powers, Attorney General William P. Barr has been pushing Republicans in the opposite direction. He warned on Wednesday that he would tell Mr. Trump to veto the bill because it would impose too many restrictions on law enforcement and national-security authorities.

Unlike most other legislation that becomes law in Washington today, surveillance bills in recent years have tended to pass with unusual bipartisan coalitions that must balance the interests of civil libertarians in both parties with those of more pro-law enforcement lawmakers. When the House passed an earlier version of the bill in March, for example, 152 Democrats and 126 Republicans supported it.

“The two-thirds of the Republican Party that voted for this bill in March have indicated they are going to vote against it now,” Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, said on Thursday morning. “I am told they are doing so at the request of the president. I believe this to be against the security interest of the United States and the safety of the American people.”

Republican leaders in the House, many of whom have publicly praised the measure in recent days, quickly stepped into line behind the president and urged their colleagues to vote “no’ so that lawmakers and the White House could reopen negotiations. They offered vague statements about the bill’s inadequacies, even though several had urged the president to sign it as recently as earlier this month.

“In moving forward today, it won’t be signed into law,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, said on Wednesday. “The president has questions and the attorney general has questions. Let’s take a deep breath and go back and work together.”

Democrats faced their own defections from the left, with the leaders of the influential progressive caucus warning that the bill before them was “far too narrow in scope and would still leave the public vulnerable to invasive online spying and data collection.”

The setback was only the latest obstacle in what has proved to be a tortuous effort to overhaul federal surveillance powers. The House initially approved the bill in March, but the Senate modified it earlier this month, sending it back to be passed again before it could go to Mr. Trump to be signed into law.

House Democrats had planned to revise it still further this week, by tightening limits on when the F.B.I. may collect Americans’ internet browsing and search records. But Ms. Pelosi hastily canceled those plans after civil libertarian-oriented lawmakers and privacy advocates expressed disillusionment with the scope of the changes.

Before passing its version of the bill this month, the Senate fell just short of banning the use of one part of FISA, which permits the FBI to obtain business records deemed relevant to a national security investigation, for gathering internet search histories and browsing records. While a majority of the Senate supported the move, it failed to reach the three-fifits majority needed to advance.

Ms. Pelosi came under pressure to permit a vote on the same idea in the House, but first she had to overcome divisions within her own party, between a faction of progressives who are primarily focused on protecting civil liberties and a centrist group that is more focused on security. They agreed on ambiguous language that would limit the protections to data of Americans, but disagreed about how expansively the FISA court should interpret it.

Some liberal civil-liberties advocates balked at the potential limits of the compromise and withdrew their own support from the bill, compounding the collapse in support by Mr. Trump’s allies.

At that point, Ms. Pelosi opted on Wednesday to put forward the version of the bill the Senate already passed, saying that it was “vastly improved” from the House’s measure and stood the best chance of becoming law. But she hastened to add that if the measure failed, she would not consider simply extending the expiring F.B.I. tools without changes, as some lawmakers have advocated.

“With an intelligence bill, a FISA bill, no one is ever that happy,” she said in remarks on the House floor. “But the fact is, and I say this in all humility, we have to have a bill. If we don’t have a bill, then our liberties, our civil liberties are less protected.”

The central driver of the bill was the partial expiration in March of three laws the F.B.I. can use in national security investigations. The partly lapsed laws — which can still be used for existing investigations, just not new matters — do things like permit the F.B.I. to obtain business records in a terrorism or espionage investigation.

The provisions were unrelated to disputes over wiretapping in the Trump-Russia investigation, which an inspector general later found to be seriously flawed. But they have been swept up in the debate because both civil libertarians and allies of Mr. Trump have seen legislation to extend them as a vehicle for a broader FISA overhaul.

For example, the bill would expand guidelines that instruct FISA judges — who normally hear only from the Justice Department when weighing surveillance applications — to appoint an outsider to critique the government’s arguments. In a component the House previously approved in March and then the Senate expanded earlier this month, it would generally require the appointment of such an outsider when an investigation relates to First Amendment-protected activity like political campaigns or religious organizations.



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