House's Resolve to Curb Surveillance State Faces Biggest Test Since Trump Presidency

The proposal was introduced by a group of Democrats, Republicans, and Democrats in the House of Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.); Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.); Thomas Massie (R-Ky.); and Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) as an amendment to Justice Departments Fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill. The amendment would prohibit the government from using federal funds to search digital communications of Americans without approval from the courts. This extrajudicial surveillance was authorized by the Section 702 provision in the FISA Amendments Act in 2008. It bolstered the spying powers first established in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.The House Rules Committee voted Wednesday morning in favor of a bipartisan proposal to limit federal government warrantless searches of Americans private information. This is a major victory for surveillance reformers. The House Rules Committee will vote later in the day to test the willpower of rank-and-file legislators to reject similar measures from years ago and protect Fourth Amendment rights for their constituents. This is after Donald Trump's presidency raised more attention to the excesses of surveillance states.We've seen it repeatedly: People like Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell are so committed to maintaining surveillance state and avoiding any modest reforms, that they have effectively, from above, stopped these reforms, stated Evan Greer, director at digital rights group Fight for the Future.The House passed similar amendments in the Defense Department Appropriations Bills in 2014 and 2015. However, they were not included in the final legislation due to conference negotiations with Senate. The proposal was again presented by Lofgren, Massie and others in recent years but failed to receive majority support.FISA was designed to target foreigners but federal intelligence agencies have used it to search Americans private data. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court published an opinion in April that stated that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation had made hundreds of queries into collected documents using names and identifiers of Americans, who applied for the FBIs Citizen Academy.However, activists believe that this year will be different. Greer stated that Democrats are being pressed for more after the George Floyd protests last summer, which highlighted the unfair targeting of Black and brown communities by surveillance programs. Trump's Justice Department secretly spied upon journalists communications. Greer anticipates that more revelations about abuses in his presidency will be made in the years ahead.Republicans feel the need to address surveillance reform as well. The Trump administration was a strong supporter of federal law enforcement's broad powers to track journalists. However, the former president facilitated a shift in right-wing opinion and fomented populist resentment against government surveillance whenever it served his interests. Trump's attack on the FBI for wiretapping 2016 campaigns and Tucker Carlson's recent lamentations about alleged National Security Agency spying may lead to more conservative legislators voting against closing the Section 702 loophole.Although there is no reason to believe we have lost any Democrats on the issue, it is clear that we have won a lot of Republicans," said Sean Vitka (policy counsel at Demand Progress), an internet advocacy group. It is very possible that 100 Republicans are now opposed to FISA across the board.Even if the House votes for the amendment with overwhelming support, it still needs to win the support of conference negotiators in order to be included in final appropriations bills. Vitka believes that this may be possible, as the Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is a stronger advocate for reform than previous committee chairs. Leahy has been a prominent surveillance critic, as have senators Ron Wyden (Oregon Democrat) and Mike Lee (Utah Republican).The new political tide will not change the fact that the amendment's champions will continue to face the same private sector companies as government agencies who want Section 702 to remain unaffected. Greer pointed out that surveillance is big business for contractors and even though congressional leaders may feel the pressure of a large vote count and conference negotiators they might still cave to unsubstantiated claims made by intelligence agents about the national security risks of reform.The intelligence community is under enormous pressure and refuses to admit the harms and abuses. They will always try to blame politicians at the top. Greer stated that if they limit in any way what we can do, then the next 9/11 will be your fault. Even though there is no evidence that these massive surveillance programs prevented or saved one life, Greer claimed.Vitka suggested that activists could push for the inclusion of the measure in the Fiscal Year 2022 defense expenditure bill. This is similar to what Lofgren and her coworkers have done in the past. He stated that the results of this year's fight will set the stage for a larger battle in 2023 when the 2008 measure authorizing Section 702 expires.Vitka stated that the goal is to ensure it is not reauthorized with no major reform.