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House extends FISA in 256 to 164 vote, without many changes

Sheetal Sukhija - Friday 12th January, 2018

WASHINGTON, U.S. - On Thursday, the House of Representatives rejected new privacy safeguards and decided to extend the  Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program for six years.

The Surveillance Law that was to expire soon permits the government to collect communications from U.S. companies including Google and AT&T - of foreigners abroad without a warrant — even when the targets are talking to Americans.

The bill was extended for six years with minimal changes in a 256 to 164 vote.

In extending the controversial bill further, representatives rejected a push by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to impose significant privacy limits when it sweeps up Americans’ emails and other personal communications.

In 2008, Congress enacted the law to legalize a form of a once-secret warrantless surveillance program that was put in place after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

On Thursday, hours before the vote, Trump set off confusion and turmoil on Twitter, even as Republicans were scrambling to secure enough support to extend the law without new privacy constraints.

On Thursday morning, moments after Fox & Friends aired a segment on the controversial law, Trump took to Twitter to express skepticism about government surveillance.

Republican leaders who have been trying to renew the 702 law more or less intact were enraged by Trump’s tweet. 

Further, Trump’s comments came despite the White House issuing a statement on Wednesday night urging the Congress to block significant new constraints on the NSA program.

Then, less than two hours later, Trump appeared to reverse his opinion on the issue in another statement on Twitter.

Despite the vote by the House, the Senate is yet to pass the legislation.

In 2013, following Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the country witnessed a period of intense interest in surveillance.

Civil libertarians and conservative skeptics of government power worked together to push for new limits.

At the same time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies and their backers in Congress from across party lines — and in both the Obama and Trump administrations — tried to hold the line.

However, it was only in 2015 that the post-Snowden privacy movement secured its largest victory when Congress voted to end and replace one of the programs that Snowden exposed.

As part of this program, the NSA had been secretly collecting logs of Americans’ domestic phone calls in bulk. 

However, lawmakers who had hoped to add significant privacy constraints to the warrantless surveillance program, fell short on Thursday.

An amendment to the Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act was rejected hours before the house voted to extend it.

The amendment would have led to imposing a series of new safeguards and the proposal included a requirement that officials obtain warrants in most cases before hunting for, and reading, emails and other messages of Americans that were swept up under the surveillance.

Commenting on the outcome of the vote, Representative Devin Nunes, (R-Cal), who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said, “The House of Representatives has taken a big step to ensure the continuation of one of the intelligence community’s most vital tools for tracking foreign terrorists.”

Meanwhile, Representative Justin Amash, the Republican of Michigan who sponsored the privacy measures, expressed disappointment at the outcome, and said, “We had a bipartisan coalition who worked very hard to protect people’s rights, and we will continue to fight and continue to educate our colleagues about it.”

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that by rejecting the overhaul amendment, the House had avoided imposing “a crippling requirement in national security and terrorism cases.”

Schiff said, “We were certainly thrown into plenty of turmoil with the president’s tweets this morning and that made everything look quite speculative. I do think the underlying bill makes a sensible compromise.”

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