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Media Looks Away as House Quietly Approves Warrantless Spying

With every camera focused on impeachment, Republicans and Democrats vote to continue invasive Patriot Act provisions.

While cameras were trained on the impeachment hearings in the House, lawmakers slipped away last week to vote for a continuing resolution that, if passed by the Senate, will fund the government through December 20.

But that’s not all it will do. Democratic leaders added language that extends some of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, tucked into a section of this must-pass bill titled “Other Matters.”

It includes an extension of three Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorities until March 15, 2020, and section 215, which, as Edward Snowden exposed, the government uses to justify sweeping mass surveillance, warrantless search powers, and the call detail records (CDR) program.

By sneaking this provision into a must-pass bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forced liberal Democrats to choose between allowing these provisions to sunset or funding the government.

Just as Democrats are decrying President Donald Trump’s abuse of executive powers, they’re busy giving his administration an extension of those same powers, said Justin Amash, a congressman from Michigan and former Republican, who added, “it’s surreal.”

Amash submitted an amendment to strip the Patriot Act language from the budget bill, but Democrats on the Rules Committee blocked the amendment.

The Patriot Act extension passed the House with nearly all Democrats voting in favor. If it clears the Senate and Trump signs it into law, Democrats will now be responsible for enabling warrantless surveillance against Americans.

“Yesterday, Speaker Pelosi said the president has ‘abused his power for his own personal, political benefit.’ Today, she wants to extend the president’s power to do warrantless surveillance of Americans,” Amash wrote on Twitter.

Both parties are equally hypocritical on this. Trump supporters crow about Director James Comey’s FBI abusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts in order to surveil the Trump campaign, while Democrats blame Republican President George W. Bush for the Patriot Act and decry executive power under Trump. Yet both teamed up to extend the administration’s surveillance authority.

They also extended the Call Data Records (CDR) program, which the National Security Agency (NSA) can’t even demonstrate provides any value.

“For privacy advocates, this is such an obvious choice,” Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for the Constitution Project at the Project on Government Oversight, said in an interview with The American Conservative. Because the CDR program vacuums up all the phone call records of anyone within “two hops” of a “specific selection term,” a few dozen FISA warrants can lead to the phone call records of millions of Americans.

“It’s incredibly privacy invasive,” said Laperruque. “There’s tens of millions of phone records that are caught up in this. There’s hundreds of thousands of Americans that are caught when they have a warrant for one person.”

Repealing the call records program should have been a no-brainer. Thanks to “technical irregularities” during collection, the NSA said it inadvertently received a huge amount of call data records. Then months later, another “overcollection” incident caused it to delete every record it had collected and voluntarily stop the CDR program entirely.

Senators Lindsey Graham and Dianne Feinstein were “acting a few months ago like they’re tough by contemplating eliminating the CDR program” even though that’s widely considered the lowest hanging fruit among a series of needed reforms,  said Josh Withrow, legislative affairs manager for FreedomWorks, in an interview with The American Conservative.

But that was before members of the Trump administration appeared before congressional committees and requested that the CDR authority “the NSA had voluntarily shut down” be renewed anyway “because it might be useful one day,” India McKinney, director of Federal Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The American Conservative.

We want to have that “tool in our toolbox” because it could be “valuable moving forward,” an NSA official told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

According to our intelligence agencies’ liberal interpretation of section 215, the “business records” provision could allow the government to collect intensely personal private information, like medical records, location data, or even possibly footage from an Amazon Ring doorbell camera, all without a warrant, Trump administration officials told Congress.

Yet the funding bill, including the extension of surveillance powers, passed 231-192.

Only 10 Democrats defied leadership to vote against the resolution, including “the Squad” congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar.

Ultimately, this episode illustrates how Congress continues to fail to perform its most basic duties. No doubt the vast majority of the members of the House tell their constituents that they are against warrantless surveillance and an unchecked executive. But how do they vote?

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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