House passes spy program after confusing Trump tweets

Thomas Massie Justin Amash Rand Paul

The House of Representatives voted 256-164 in favour of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments (FISA) Act of 2008, which extends for six years the government's ability collect emails and other communications of foreign targets located outside the U.S. from American companies.

However, today's vote comes with the hope from some civil liberties-minded congressmen that they will be able to establish new guardrails on the program, which is up for an extension for the first time since whistleblower Edward Snowden released classified information about the scope of the National Security Agency's surveillance.

A former Republican lawmaker who once declared that Trump's tweets "help" his agency, Pompeo had made a forceful case for reauthorizing the FISA program during a television interview five days ago.

Section 702 was set to expire at the end of 2017 and civil rights groups and privacy-minded lawmakers demanded reforms so that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Administration (NSA) would be required to get warrants before accessing or even querying these databases for information and communications from Americans. Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden immediately vowed to filibuster the measure but it was unclear whether they could convince enough colleagues to force changes.

The issue centered on a law called Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

Congress created section 702 with the 2008 FISA Amendments Act-the same act that gave telecom companies retroactive immunity for illegally spying on Americans at the behest of the Bush administration.

Congress moved Thursday toward renewing a critical intelligence program despite a morning of confusion prompted by President Donald Trump's tweets, in which he appeared to support significant changes that his administration had worked for months to rebuff. About 90 minutes later, the president issued a follow-up that attempted to walk back his original statement. The Senate must still pass the bill before it is sent to the White House for the president's signature.

Kelly, the White House chief of staff who was inundated with phone calls earlier in the morning, traveled to Capitol Hill for the vote and spoke with lawmakers inside the GOP cloakroom just off the House floor.

Nunes said his bill strengthens privacy protections "without hindering the ability of our intelligence professionals to monitor terror suspects, analyze collected data, and keep us safe".

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Already, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including 100 House Democrats and 100 House Republicans, have joined Paul's fight to amend the section, the authority of which was extended when the short-term spending bill passed in December. A retired Marine general who has insisted that Trump's tweets don't have the potential to derail the administration's agenda, he denied again on Thursday that the President's dispatches were harmful.

But top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees were quick to leap on the first tweet as "irresponsible" and "untrue". "FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning".

In his second tweet Trump seemed to backtrack, pushing for the act to be re-upped. "This strikes the balance that we must have between honoring and protecting the privacy rights of citizens. and making sure we have the tools we need in this age of 21st century terrorism to keep our citizens safe". Trump wrote on Twitter.

Thursday's final bill did include a new requirement that the information gained by spying agencies can't be used against Americans in criminal suits unless there's a warrant, although that doesn't prevent intelligence and law enforcement agencies from accessing to Americans communications.

Last year, Trump accused the Obama administration of wiretapping Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The dossier examines ties between Russian Federation and Trump and his aides.

Both Republicans and Democrats have pushed back against linking the controversy over unmasking to the FISA programme the House is seeking to extend.

Privacy hawks have sought for years to limit that sort of "incidental" collection, while making it harder for the USA government to tap that data as part of their investigations.

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