Warrantless Surveillance Is Next on Congress’ Must-Do List, but Speaker Johnson Refuses To Take a Position

Conservatives and liberals alike have been pushing the speaker for months to stand up for more stringent civil liberties protections.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is due to expire on April 19 after Speaker Johnson punted on the issue in December AP

Congress will soon return to Washington to complete one of its last must-do items of the calendar year — reauthorization of the government’s warrantless surveillance powers. For months, House Republicans have been unable to choose between competing reauthorization bills, and Speaker Johnson has so far refused to pick a side, leading to even more confusion. 

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is due to expire on April 19 after Mr. Johnson punted on the issue in December. The House had planned to pass a full FISA reauthorization bill at the time, but acrimony within the Republican conference led Mr. Johnson to choose a short-term extension rather than embrace a more wide-ranging reform. 

The bills at hand come from two powerful committee chairmen — Mike Turner of the Intelligence Committee and Jim Jordan of the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Turner’s bill would make minimal changes to the current FISA scheme, which has led to journalists, members of Congress, protesters, and even President Trump being unintentionally caught in the surveillance net. 

Mr. Jordan’s reform bill — which has broad support among conservatives and liberals alike — would require intelligence officers to obtain warrants before conducting any searches of American citizens’ private data and communications. 

Mr. Johnson has frustrated his colleagues in recent months by not taking a side on the matter. In December, he wanted to put both of the FISA bills on the House floor, and whichever one received more votes would be sent to the Senate. Conservative members who support Mr. Jordan’s bill said the speaker was trying to avoid picking sides. “It’s not a beauty pageant,” Congressman Ralph Norman said. 

One analyst previously told the Sun that the Intelligence Committee bill was toothless and clearly drafted with the input of national security agency officials. “The fingerprints of the FBI, NSA, and the ODNI are all over this ‘compromise’ FISA ‘reform’ bill,” a senior fellow for homeland security at the conservative Cato Institute, Patrick Eddington, said. 

“It continues to amaze me how [the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] acts as the legislative and policy waterboy for the intelligence community rather than being the overseer of it that it’s supposed to be,” he continued. 

Liberal scholars agree with Mr. Eddington’s assessment of Section 702. Two surveillance and privacy experts at the Brennan Center for Justice, Noah Chauvin and Elizabeth Goitein, called the current use of Section 702 “an outrageous violation of Americans’ privacy rights.” 

“The problem is compounded by what one federal judge described as the FBI’s ‘persistent and widespread’ abuses of the minimal rules governing backdoor searches,” the pair said. “Intelligence officials are only supposed to perform these searches if they reasonably believe they are likely to uncover foreign intelligence, or, in the case of the FBI, evidence of a crime. It’s an extremely permissive rule, yet agencies have repeatedly violated it.”

One of the major proponents of Mr. Jordan’s bill, Congressman Warren Davidson, has been beating this drum publicly and privately for months. In December, he sent a letter demanding the FISA reauthorization be stripped from the national defense bill. The letter was co-signed by more than 50 House lawmakers, including members of the conservative Freedom Caucus and liberal members such as Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal. 

“This controversial law has a history of abuse, including spying on Americans, including tens of thousands of protesters as well as journalists, campaign supporters, members of the U.S. Congress, and Presidential campaigns,” the letter states. 

After Mr. Johnson announced in December that he would simply punt the reauthorization debate to April, Mr. Davidson told reporters that voting to make the Louisianan speaker was the “worst” mistake he had made during his time in Congress. 

Mr. Davidson also got into a screaming match with Mr. Turner behind closed doors when the intelligence committee chairman said that Mr. Davidson’s chosen bill would allow for more child pornography on the internet. 

Mr. Johnson’s inability to lead on the issue has left not only his fellow House Republicans angry, but his lack of action has forced senators to take up the matter. In March, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, Senator Durbin, and a libertarian-leaning conservative, Senator Lee, came out with their own FISA reform bill that would require either a warrant or a FISA court order before beginning surveillance of American citizens. 

“This narrow warrant requirement is carefully crafted to ensure that it is feasible to implement and sufficiently flexible to accommodate legitimate security needs,” Messrs. Durbin and Lee wrote in their bill summary.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use