House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) went dark on an opportunity to temporarily reauthorize sweeping federal spying powers.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Senate Republicans are calling on Pelosi to pass bipartisan legislation that renews domestic surveillance tools for 77 days, the Washington Examiner‘s Jerry Dunleavey reported Wednesday. The Senate is seeking to prolong those powers after a House bill to reauthorize and reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) tools had foundered in the upper chamber.
“The Department made strong reforms to the FISA process, many of which are reflected in the House-passed reform legislation, that it believes will address the misconduct of the past,” DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said over the weekend. She went on:
We urge the House to approve the Senate-passed temporary extension of the U.S. Freedom Act as soon as possible to avoid any further gap in our national security capabilities over the next several weeks.
Pelosi ducks on FISA
The House passed a bill in March to reform and renew the FISA, but it was rejected in the Senate by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), both libertarian-leaning Republicans who said it didn’t do enough to curb potential abuses. As a result, the Senate put together a new bill to temporarily extend existing surveillance powers in their current form. But the House did not take it up on March 27, when lawmakers in the lower chamber scrambled back to the Hill to pass a massive, $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.
There are three powers under consideration, including two created by the controversial Patriot Act, The New York Times reported. They allow investigators to keep tracking a suspect if they switch phone lines (“roving wiretap”), to monitor “lone wolf” suspects using FISA powers even if they have no foreign links, and to get business records that authorities deem relevant, according to Fox News.
The Senate plans to eventually revisit the House bill and vote on amendments, but Congress is now in recess until April 20. In the meantime, Republicans are decrying Pelosi’s ducking move as “reckless,” but Pelosi has fired back.
“The House passed a very bipartisan FISA bill, which contained significant reforms increasing transparency, oversight and protections for civil liberties and privacy,” a spokesperson for Pelosi said, according to Politico. “In spite of significant bipartisan support among senators for the House bill, [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell failed to take up the House bill and instead struck this risky delay deal in order to appease Senator Lee.”
The cut off for the powers is March 15; however, investigations into targets that predate March 15, or into suspicious activities that occurred before that date, can continue, The New York Times reported.
Russia and reform
The controversy comes in the wake of an explosive spying scandal that many, including President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr, have called one of the most troubling in modern political history: the abuse of the FISA court to spy on an ex-Trump campaign aide, Carter Page. The DOJ’s internal watchdog released a new report on Tuesday detailing new problems with how FISA has been implemented, Politico reported.
According to Fox News, Trump had suggested that he might veto the House’s version of the bill to reform the measure, a nod to the bad blood left by the use of FISA powers to spy on his 2016 presidential campaign. Sen. Paul, for his part, wants to block FISA from being used to spy on American citizens, Politico notes.
Meanwhile, Pelosi is already eyeing a fourth round of coronavirus stimulus legislation, over the objections of Sen. McConnell (R-KY). Republicans previously held their noses on the $2.2 trillion stimulus package, the largest in history, in a historic departure for a party traditionally dominated by fiscal hawks.
McConnell has said he is no rush to pass another round of coronavirus legislation, CNBC reports.