Congress’ Rushed Attempt to Sneak Through NSA Surveillance Bill Delayed

According to a Politico report published Tuesday evening, a group of Republican surveillance hawks in the House of Representatives made a last-minute attempt to ram through H.R. 4478, a bill that would extend Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which authorizes domestic mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). The program is set to expire at the end of the year, though large parts of it can continue beyond that deadline for some time. Since Wednesday night, however, debate over how to reauthorize certain NSA surveillance authorities has intensified, culminating in the House Rules Committee announcing that the December 20 vote to potentially expand NSA spying powers has been postponed. Additionally, Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) had threatened to filibuster the Senate version of the bill, which was introduced in October.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) describes the importance of stopping this bill:

“If this bill passes, we will miss the opportunity to prevent the FBI from searching through NSA databases for American communications without a warrant. Worse, nothing will be done to rein in the massive, unconstitutional surveillance of the NSA on Americans or innocent technology users worldwide.”

The bill, entitled the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017, was originally introduced in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence by the Chair of the Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). It shares the same name as the Senate bill introduced in October. The bill broadens the definition of who is subject to surveillance, allows warrantless search of American communications, expands how collected data can be used, and treats Fourth Amendment protections as voluntary.

The bill would create an easy path for the NSA to restart an invasive type of surveillance (called “about” searches) that the agency voluntarily ended earlier this year due to criticisms from the FISA court. It would also allow the FBI the option to decide whether or not to seek a warrant before reading American communications collected through “backdoor” searches under Section 702.

The reauthorization effort may be aborted for now, but it’s still possible that Congress may try to shove a 702 extension into next week’s “must-pass” spending bill — though some members of Congress have warned leadership that they will not accept this. The other controversial NSA surveillance program, Section 215, expired before Congress was able to agree on a reform package, which helped to get Congress to finally agree on significant reform to the program just several weeks after it was technically discontinued. If Congress were to pursue the reauthorization effort, a more likely solution would be a short term renewal of 30 or 60 days, forcing the debate into January.

It is still important to contact your representatives to let them know that the bill is unacceptable and needs to be stopped. The EFF has set up a tool to help you tweet at your member of Congress.