The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to renew the National Security Agency’s spy powers to collect internet communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008.
The vote (256-to-164) in favor of the legislation ends a yearlong debate over the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of US citizens. Privacy rights groups had fought an uphill battle to stop the extension of the program due to expire Jan. 19. Meanwhile, US intelligence agencies urged lawmakers to renew the program.
The House voted extend rules of Section 702 of the FISA law for six years with only some minor changes. The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass before the program expires.
Under the rules of Section 702 of the FISA law, the NSA can conduct warrantless spying of foreigners located abroad, including their communications with Americans.
Privacy activists had fought hard to stop the extension and reform the amendment. A chief concern was a so-called “backdoor search loophole” that allowed the NSA to collect communications of US citizens associated with messages “to” or “from” foreigners under surveillance.
“The NSA surveillance extension bill approved by the House today will allow for continued, unconstitutional surveillance that hurts the American people and violates our Fourth Amendment rights. Lawmakers failed to protect Americans from illegal, warrantless surveillance, even when they had a chance to rein in NSA spying abuses with the Amash amendment. This is unacceptable. We will continue the fight to reform NSA spying as the vote moves to the Senate,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a statement Thursday.
Another sticking point with privacy activists was the bill failed to limit how collected data can be used and shared by other law enforcement agencies. The vote allows the NSA to continue its practice of sharing certain types of data collected under Section 702 of the FISA law with the FBI.
Privacy advocates, including the ACLU and EFF, argued this loophole violated Fourth Amendment protections allowing the FBI to collect private communications of US citizens without a warrant. Even President Trump, for a brief period on Thursday, appeared to agree with privacy activists before changing his mind. On Thursday he Tweeted a statement against the bill’s passage.
“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” he wrote.
He later changed his mind and supported the bill.
“House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.” This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
Trump had taken issue with a provision in the bill that allows government officials to ask spy agencies to unmask names of US citizens that are subjects of surveillance if it’s believed knowing the identity will help an investigation. Trump had accused Obama of improperly unmasking identities of Trump’s transition team.
The NSA began collecting data on US citizens’ communications abroad in October 2001, as part of the Bush administrations reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The program continued quietly until 2008, when Congress enacting Section 702 of the FISA law. The program came under intense fire after Edward Snowden, in 2013, leaked information about the NSA program.
“The House voted today to give President Trump and his administration more spying powers. The government will use this bill to continue warrantless intrusions into Americans’ private emails, text messages, and other communications,” said Neema Singh Guliani, policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. in a prepared statement.