Warrantless surveillance hitches a ride on defense policy bill — causing fresh GOP agita

Warrantless surveillance hitches a ride on defense policy bill — causing fresh GOP agita

Congress is preparing to extend its deadline for untangling a complicated fight over warrantless government surveillance – which will mean yet another headache for House GOP leaders.

Top lawmakers are attaching a short-term extension of the government wiretapping power known as Section 702 to a sweeping defense policy bill, according to seven aides and lawmakers familiar with the text of the bill.

The extension would give Congress until April 19 to figure out how to reauthorize Section 702, named for its specific section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The provision is meant to target foreigners abroad but has long stoked controversy for its ability to sweep in Americans.

Whether to attach a surveillance powers extension was one of the final sticking points on the defense bill, whose text is now finalized and expected to be released later Wednesday. Both the House and Senate still need to pass the defense bill, and there is bipartisan backlash already brewing over the decision to attach a surveillance extension.

Conservatives privately urged Speaker Mike Johnson to separate the two issues. His decision not to do so promises to complicate a final vote on the defense bill, a typically must-pass proposal that could come to the House floor as soon as next week.

“This was a total sell-out of conservative principles and a huge win for Democrats,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted of the defense deal, pointing to the surveillance extension among other provisions as reasons she would be opposed.

But the extension will give the House time to resolve his chamber’s two competing long-term overhaul proposals for the surveillance authority: one from the Judiciary Committee and one from the Intelligence Committee.

Both bills would make major changes to Section 702, such as limiting the number of FBI personnel who are able to conduct searches and imposing new penalties for surveillance violations. The bills also would implement new auditing and reporting requirements for the program, as well as change the larger surveillance law the authority is housed under as well as a related surveillance court that fields requests for wiretapping power.

But the two committees have split over when a warrant should be required for searching 702-collected data for Americans’ information.

The Intelligence Committee bill would require a warrant for so-called “evidence of a crime” searches, which aren’t related to foreign intelligence and comprise a small subset of searches. The committee is expected to easily advance its bill on a bipartisan basis on Thursday.

“I think it’s going to pass unanimously. I think it’s a fabulous product. I think it’s the answer to solve the problem,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a member of the panel, told POLITICO.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday advanced its own sweeping bill on a 35-2 vote.

“I know our approach will have its critics. … [But] I believe we have struck the right balance here and perhaps the only balance that can pass the House at this time,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said about the bill.

The Judiciary bill would impose a warrant requirement for searching 702-collected data for Americans’ information. However, it builds in exceptions including for “emergency situations,” if an individual has consented to the search or for some cybersecurity-related searches.

The legislation also makes broader surveillance reforms, including preventing data brokers from being able to sell consumer information to law enforcement.

The two no votes on Wednesday came from Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) and Hank Johnson (Ga.).

“This bill ignores the extensive remedial measures the FBI and the Justice Department has taken,” Swalwell said.

John Sakellariadis and Connor O’Brien contributed.

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