‘While the House tells us to trust government to police itself, I prefer instead to trust the Founders’ guidance in the Bill of Rights…’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) At the behest of two libertarian-leaning GOP senators, President Donald Trump said he would consider vetoing a bill that would renew the authority of the federal investigators to legally spy on U.S. citizens—and even rival presidential campaigns.
Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted “coup” of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2020
The lingering questions and opposition made it likely that the bill would not meet its March 15 sunset deadline, presumably leaving intelligence agencies without some of the domestic surveillance protections that they have ostensibly used in the war against terrorism and other threats to U.S. security.
While Republicans have been largely unified in staving off congressional Democrats’ attacks, they have been at loggerheads over the passage of the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act, a post-Sept.-11 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that is set to expire on Sunday.
Powerful Senate GOP leaders such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Intelligence Chair Richard Burr of North Carolina have supported the bill’s renewal, despite major concerns raised by a report from the Justice Department inspector general last December.
The House passed its version of the bill on Wednesday, reported The Hill, with a 278-136 vote garnering bipartisan support after extensive negotiations involving House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
But critics said the calls from Attorney General William Barr for a “clean renewal”—or even a compromise that doesn’t offer substantive reforms—carried echoes of the demands from the same corrupt intelligence leaders who abused it to begin with.
Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney who also worked as counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued in a recent op-ed for the Washington Examiner that former FBI directors Robert Mueller and James Comey (then deputy attorney general) had made similar cases during a 2005 renewal.
Although privacy advocates secured a unanimous Senate vote for additional safeguards and accountability, the 2005 legislation failed to gain traction in the House, where “Comey’s and Mueller’s efforts … prevailed in preventing meaningful reforms,” Tolman said.
“I was one of very few in the room when Comey represented that U.S. citizens need not worry about being surveilled and that internal safeguards were sufficient,” Tolman continued. “Mueller would take a similar position, reassuring us that privacy concerns were overstated, and a ‘clean’ reauthorization was vital.
Among those who now remain firmly opposed to the current renewal are key members of the House Freedom Caucus, as well as Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, all of whom say respecting citizens’ privacy is paramount.
The ‘Deal’ on FISA is weak sauce diluted & made impotent by A.G. Barr. None of the reforms prevent secret FISA court from abusing the rights of Americans. None of the reforms prevent a President of either party from a politically motivated investigation. Big Disappointment!
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 10, 2020
Even where the House FISA / PATRIOT Act deal claims to offer modest protection for political candidates and elected officials, it doesn’t provide the same protection for the American people! @realDonaldTrump has asked for real FISA reforms, not fake ones. Sad!
— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) March 11, 2020
On Wednesday, Lee assured concerned citizens that “there are a lot of procedural tools at our disposal” which could be used to slow the House bill’s progress before Sunday’s deadline.
He sought to offer several amendments to the bill during a House floor debate on Thursday but was repeatedly shut down by Burr, noted FreedomWorks in a statement supporting Lee’s effort.
“Sen. Lee made an amazing, impassioned case for defending Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights against intrusive government surveillance authorities that have often been abused,” said the statement.
“All he asked for was the ability to have an actual debate to amend a bill that falls woefully short of upholding those rights,” it continued. “In contrast, not only did Sen. Burr block Sen. Lee’s every attempt to secure votes on common-sense, bi-partisan amendments to the FISA reauthorization, he willfully mischaracterized Lee’s own positions and falsely accused him of holding the bill ‘hostage’.”
FreedomWorks said that the lawmakers themselves may be misreading what the provisions of the House bill actually say—effectively arguing, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., notoriously said of Obamacare that Congress has to pass it to know what’s in it.
“Sen. Burr further made the dangerous claim that if the expiring provisions of FISA sunset this weekend as scheduled, the executive branch would be able to continue their surveillance activities unabated,” said FreedomWorks. “This raises serious new questions about how these laws are being interpreted that lawmakers must follow-up on as soon as possible.”
However, Trump’s threat of a veto two days before the sunset—as Congress eyes a spring recess and the threat of the coronavirus leaving some members in quarantine—presents yet another hurdle to the bill’s timely passage.
As the Senate appeared set to adjourn without passage, Paul issued a statement on Friday reaffirming his position.
“As President Trump has repeatedly stated, we should not reauthorize these expiring surveillance powers without real reform,” said the statement.
“After all we have learned about how government has abused its authority, including spying on President Trump’s 2016 campaign, neither a clean extension nor the window dressing offered by the U.S. House, which will not stop future abuses, are acceptable,” he continued. “While the House tells us to trust government to police itself, I prefer instead to trust the Founders’ guidance in the Bill of Rights.”