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U.S. House passes bill to renew NSA warrantless internet surveillance

( Reuters) — The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill to renew the National Security Agencys warrantless internet surveillance program, overcoming objections from privacy advocates and confusion prompted by morning tweets from President Donald Trump that initially questioned the spying tool. The legislation, which passed 256-164 and split party lines, is the culmination of a years-long debate in Congress on the proper scope of U.S. intelligence collection – one fueled by the 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance secrets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Senior Democrats in the House had urged cancellation of the vote after Trump appeared to cast doubt on the merits of the program, but Republicans forged ahead. Trump initially wrote on Twitter that the surveillance program, first created in secret after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later legally authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), had been used against him but later said it was needed. Some conservative, libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats attempted to persuade colleagues to include more privacy protections. They failed on Thursday to pass an amendment to include a requirement for a warrant before the NSA or other intelligence agencies could scrutinize communications belonging to an American whose data is incidentally collected. Thursdays vote was a major blow to privacy and civil liberties advocates, who just two years ago celebrated passage of a law effectively ending the NSAs bulk collection of U.S. phone call records, another top-secret program exposed by Snowden. The bill as passed by the House would extend the NSAs spying program for six years with minimal changes. Some privacy groups said it would actually expand the NSAs surveillance powers. Most lawmakers expect it to become law, although it still would require Senate approval and Trumps signature. Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden immediately vowed to filibuster the measure, but it was unclear whether they could persuade enough colleagues to force changes. The Senate will hold a procedural vote on the bill next week after it returns from a break, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday. The intelligence community and the Justice Department depend on these vital authorities to protect the homeland and keep Americans safe, McConnell, a Republican, said in a statement. The White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican leaders in Congress have said they consider the surveillance program indispensable and in need of little or no revision. Before the vote, a tweet from Trump had contradicted the official White House position and renewed unsubstantiated allegations that the previous Democratic administration of Barack Obama improperly surveilled the Republicans 2016 presidential campaign. 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 wrote in a tweet. The White House did not immediately respond to a request to clarify Trumps tweet, but he posted a follow-up less than two hours later, after speaking on the phone with House Republican leader Paul Ryan. With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and todays vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart! Trump tweeted. Unmasking refers to the largely separate issue of how Americans names kept secret in intelligence reports can be revealed. After the vote Thursday, Ryan, asked about his conversation with the president, said Trumps concerns regarded other parts of the law. Its well known that he has concerns about the domestic FISA law. Thats not what were doing today. Today was 702, which is a different part of that law. … He knows that and he, I think, put out something that clarifies that, Ryan told reporters. Asked by Reuters at a conference in New York about Trumps tweets, Rob Joyce, the top White House cyber official, said there was no confusion within the Oval Office about the value of the surveillance program and that there have been no cases of it being used improperly for political purposes. Trumps tweets on surveillance marked the second time this week that he appeared to veer from the administrations position. During a meeting on Tuesday to discuss immigration with a bipartisan group of legislators he initially voiced support when Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein suggested a clean bill to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pointed out that a clean bill would not include the security and border wall that Trump has insisted be part of any immigration plan. Press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters there was no contradiction in Trumps tweets on the surveillance program and that he was voicing broader concerns about FISA. Without congressional action, legal support for Section 702 will expire next week, although intelligence officials say it could continue through April. Section 702 allows the NSA to eavesdrop on vast amounts of digital communications from foreigners living outside the United States through U.S. companies such as Facebook, Verizon Communications, and Alphabets Google.

Trump tweet throws today’s House surveillance votes into chaos [Updated]

Trump tweet appears to attack NSA spying hours after the White House defends it. Update: The House has passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) to extend NSA surveillance authority for six years without significant new privacy safeguards. The vote was 256 to 164. Most Republicans supported the legislation, but it wouldn't have passed without the support of 65 Democrats. As recently as last night, the Trump administration was strongly in favor of legislation to renew one of the federal government's most controversial spying powers. Known to insiders as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the law grants the government surveillance powers that are only supposed to be used on targets outside the United States. Civil liberties groups say that the law can too easily be used to sweep up the private communications of Americans. And they're backing legislation called the USA Rights Act to place new restrictions on the use of 702 spying powers—the House of Representatives was voting on that amendment as we published this story. Last night, the White House put out a statement condemning USA Rights. "This Amendment will re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that the country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11 in order to increase information sharing and improve our national security," the White House argued. Then Fox and Friends happened. "I don't understand why Donald Trump is in favor of this," said Judge Andrew Napolitano in a Thursday morning segment of the show. "His woes began with unlawful foreign surveillance and unconstitutional domestic surveillance of him before he was the president of the United States. And now he wants to institutionalize this. Mr. President, this is not the way to go. " We don't know if Donald Trump was watching at that moment. What we do know is that less than an hour later, Donald Trump posted a tweet agreeing with Napolitano and seeming to contradict his own press operation from the night before. House votes on controversial FISA ACT today. 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? Experts we talked to cast doubt on Trump's claim that his campaign was surveilled under FISA authorities. "There is no evidence FISA was used for political purposes," said Jake Laperruque, a surveillance law expert at the Program on Government Oversight. But Laperruque said it is possible that some Trump campaign staffers like foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos had their communications intercepted when they communicated with foreigners who were already under surveillance by the NSA. Trump's national security advisors may have had a talk with him after that tweet because he partially walked it back a couple of hours later. " Todays vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land," he wrote. "We need it!" Congress created section 702 with the 2008 FISA Amendments Act—the same act that gave telecom companies retroactive immunity for illegally spying on Americans at the behest of the Bush administration. It allows warrantless surveillance outside the United States even if one end of the communication is an American on American soil. The provision was controversial, so Congress passed the law with a sunset provision. After a couple of extensions, that sunset is now scheduled to take effect later this month. Laperruque says that at this point, few people want to repeal Section 702 outright. But civil liberties groups are worried about two controversial practices that could compromise the privacy of Americans. They've rallied behind the USA Rights Act, legislation sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) that would provide new limits for Section 702 spying authority. One new limit focuses on "backdoor searches." The federal government is legally prohibited from using the broad surveillance powers of Section 702 to target Americans. Any surveillance effort must choose a target who is overseas. However, once the government has chosen a foreign target, it may intercept communications the target has with Americans. And the government saves many of these phone calls, text messages, emails, and other communications in a massive database. A "backdoor search" occurs when the government then queries this massive database of already-collected communications for information related to an American subject. If the American has communicated with foreigners who were previously under government surveillance, that communication would be available to US intelligence or law enforcement agencies. The USA Rights Act would require the government to get a warrant before performing this kind of backdoor search. The legislation would also prohibit "about" surveillance. The NSA's general surveillance approach is to monitor international communications at scale and save copies of communications that are related to surveillance targets. Traditionally, that means collecting communications where the sender or recipient is a surveillance target. But the NSA can also save messages where a surveillance target—like Vladimir Putin or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi— is merely mentioned in communications between two people who are not themselves surveillance targets. That's "about" surveillance, and the USA Rights Act would ban it. The Republican leadership in the House has supported legislation from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) that would re-authorize Section 702 without new privacy safeguards. In the increasingly partisan House, you might think it was a foregone conclusion that that bill would pass. But Amash leads a significant faction of libertarian-minded Republicans who have bucked the White House view. Laperruque says they could number in the dozens—enough to deny the Nunes bill a majority using Republican votes alone. That means that Democratic votes could be the deciding factor. Democrats have traditionally been more worried about civil liberties—and that's especially true under Republican administrations. Many Democrats will relish the opportunity to hand Trump a legislative defeat. But the Democratic caucus isn't unified either. Yesterday, Laperruque told Ars that Adam Schiff, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, is supporting the Nunes bill. That has discouraged Democratic leadership from trying to organize a unified front against extending Donald Trump's surveillance powers. But this morning's tweets from Donald Trump could scramble the politics of the issue. His earlier tweet could give some wavering Republicans cover to defect and back the USA Rights amendment, while the fact that Trump is focusing on the issue could increase pressures on Democrats to vote against the White House. There's a good chance the intelligence agencies will get their way — they usually do— but today's votes are going to be exciting.