In a vote that divided the White House from many congressional Democrats, the House voted 301-118 on Wednesday to reauthorize controversial government-surveillance powers. The "no" votes included 111 Democrats.
The bill would reauthorize portions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that give government officials the power to eavesdrop on communications of non-U.S. citizens outside the United States. The White House says the bill is balanced between tools to prevent terrorist attacks and preserve civil liberties. “Intelligence collection under [the law] has produced and continues to produce significant information that is vital to defend the nation against international terrorism and other threats,” White House officials said in a Statement of Administration Policy released on Monday.
The Obama administration has called the FISA reauthorization a top priority for intelligence agencies. It was championed by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, while Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is shepherding the bill through the Senate, where it has cleared the Judiciary Committee.
"Our national security agencies must be able to conduct surveillance of foreign terrorists and others so we can stop them before they disable our defenses, carry out a plot against our country, or kill innocent Americans," Smith said in a floor speech before the vote on Wednesday. "This bipartisan bill ensures that our country will be able to identify and prevent threats to our national security without sacrificing the civil liberties of American citizens."
But the legislation, which recalls the controversy over Bush-era wiretapping programs after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has sparked considerable opposition from civil liberties groups, businesses, and some lawmakers. While the bill drew strong support from both the White House and many congressional Republicans, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has placed a hold on the bill in the Senate.
“Before Congress votes to renew these authorities, it is important to understand how they are working in practice,” Wyden said when he placed the hold in June. “In particular, it is important for Congress to better understand how many people inside the United States have had their communications collected or reviewed under the authorities granted by the FISA Amendments Act.”
A coalition of privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, says the law could still allow warrantless surveillance of Americans if they are in communication with people outside the United States. Additionally, privacy groups join Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., in questioning whether intelligence agencies have gone beyond the authority enacted in the law. “Despite evidence of impropriety, the government has not publicly detailed the extent of the problem or publicly explained what, if anything, it has done to prevent it from recurring,” the coalition wrote in a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday.
Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said the reauthorization should be delayed until the true impact of the law on Internet freedom and civil liberties is known. “It makes little sense to rubber-stamp a program ahead of having the information needed to review it—that’s why we have this review and renewal period,” Black said in a statement. “No one will know if we have overreach or not as the implementation of this law has remained so shrouded in secrecy.”