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Conservatives demand ‘significant reforms’ as House eyes path forward on FISA reform

By Cami Mondeaux

House conservatives are pushing against the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act unless “significant reforms” are made to rein in the capabilities of the federal government to collect data from U.S. citizens inadvertently. 

The House is set to consider a bill that would reauthorize Section 702 of FISA, a surveillance law that allows the government to collect communications from foreigners who are abroad as a way to investigate possible threats to national security. The federal statute has come under scrutiny because of its ability to sweep in communications from Americans who are in contact with foreigners, prompting some lawmakers to push for a complete overhaul. 

“Simply put, anonymous bureaucrats have abused this tool that was intended for support and surveillance as a threat to spy on American citizens,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “We need to find that balance between keeping the nation safe while protecting you from big government.”

The demands come just one day after the House released the text of its newly crafted FISA Section 702 overhaul bill that has been under negotiations for months. The 83-page bill combines provisions from two proposals previously floated by GOP lawmakers last year amid disagreements among members on how to revise the surveillance law.

The House last year had two competing pieces of legislation proposing updates to surveillance, including one from the House Judiciary Committee and one from the House Intelligence Committee. However, neither bill was able to garner the support needed to pass through the House, prompting Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to punt the legislation into the new year. 

Instead, the speaker tucked a temporary extension of the current bill into the National Defense Authorization Act last year to buy more time for negotiations, a move that was met by opposition from House conservatives. That extension is set to expire on April 19.

However, the latest draft doesn’t include the stringent warrant requirements pushed by the Judiciary Committee’s version that would have required all FISA queries on U.S. citizens to obtain probable cause warrants, angering some conservatives. Instead, the new bill would mirror language in the Intelligence Committee’s version to limit the number of FBI personnel who can search the database to gather information.

It’s not clear whether House leadership would agree to vote on an amendment that allows for changes to the warrant requirement.

Good expressed support for the original proposal from the Judiciary Committee, emphasizing the need to “make sure that our government can’t keep spying on its citizens without a warrant, that they can’t keep buying data that would otherwise require a warrant.”

Members of the Freedom Caucus went further, demanding House leaders to consider amendments to the FISA reauthorization that would include warrant requirements. Some Biden administration officials have pushed against a warrant requirement, arguing it could make it more difficult for law enforcement to conduct surveillance. 

Conservatives countered those claims by arguing warrant requirements would protect the civil rights of U.S. citizens. 

“We should be using the Judiciary bill as the base text. But at this point, as weak as the base text is, it can be made right if we have all the relevant questions asked,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) said. “And those are: Do you need a warrant? Can the government buy data that they would otherwise have to get a warrant for? Are we going to tolerate expanding this?”

The House Rules Committee scheduled the FISA bill for consideration during its Wednesday meeting, which means it could come to the floor as early as Thursday or Friday. It’s still unclear whether Republicans will tee the bill up for a vote this week.

However, unless changes are made, several conservatives are threatening to withhold their support, which could imperil the bill’s final passage.

“From my standpoint, unless there’s significant reform — and I mean significant reform,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) said. “Then you can count on me for a no vote.”

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