Renewing FISA Hits Congressional Stalemate Amid Privacy Concerns

The U.S. House of Representatives faces a significant hurdle in renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) due to Republican divisions and privacy concerns for American citizens. 

Passing FISA

The U.S. House of Representatives is struggling to advance legislation to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a major tool in supporting the federal government’s surveillance capabilities. FISA is particularly important because it allows the government to use surveillance on foreign soil to monitor possible terror links without a warrant.

A procedural vote was set to begin the debate to reauthorize section 702, but a group of House Republicans blocked the vote before it could take place, with only 19 Republicans joining Democrats in the vote to begin the debate.

The final count for the vote to begin was 193-228 after former President Donald Trump urged Republicans to oppose the FISA renewal.

Breaking Tradition

known as a rule vote, the failure of this procedural vote marks the seventh failure of this kind from current members of Congress, breaking a two-decade-long tradition of successful rule votes. The key objections from House Republicans focused on concerns over American citizen’s privacy and how FISA might allow the federal government certain rights to access people’s data.

In particular, House Republicans voiced their grievances over the fact FISA includes no amendment that would mandate warrants for accessing U.S. citizens’ data collected by third-party data brokers.

The Republican Amendment

As a response, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) proposed an amendment that would require the FBI to obtain warrants before searching lawfully collected foreign intelligence data for references to Americans. FISA critics from within the Republican party explained that they would rather allow Section 702 to expire so that it can be reintroduced with reforms that address privacy concerns.

One such critic was House Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good (R-Va.), who said, “Some of us would rather see it expire than see it not reformed properly.” However, when it comes to this vote, House Republicans are unified. Many Republicans have expressed their frustration with the results and the potential consequences of letting Section 702 expire.

Tipping the Scale

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said, “What we ended up with was a bill that didn’t have the warrant protections in the bill. It was going to be forced to be added as an amendment. And then the Speaker of the House put his finger on the scale against the amendment. And that pretty much is the story.” 

Adding to this sentiment, House Speaker Mike Johnson said, “We cannot allow section 702 of FISA to expire. It’s too important to national security. I think most of the members understand that.”

For further context surrounding Section 702 and why Republicans are taking such a hard stance, the FBI has faced criticism for thousands of non-compliant queries within the Section 702 system from 2020 to early 2021 alone. The complaints come because the FBI conducted queries using U.S. persons’ information without having any specific reasons or a factually based belief that the query would return foreign intelligence information. 

FISC Findings

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), often referred to as the FISA Court, found that up to 278,000 FBI queries might have been non-compliant and indicated a significant misuse of the Section 702 querying system.

Some of the more concerning misuses of FISA queries were used to initiate inappropriate searches on U.S. citizens related to Black Lives Matter protests and the January 6 insurrection. Responding to these criticisms, the FBI implemented reforms requiring more stringent search justification requirements, agent annual training, attorney approvals for batch queries, and consequences for violations.

The proposed House bill sought to codify these FBI reforms into law and create measures to further safeguard privacy by prohibiting non-national security-related crime searches and requiring supervisory approvals for searches involving U.S. persons.

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