Bipartisanship is a rare occurrence among members of the House Judiciary Committee, but on Nov. 6, it was widespread.
The committee voted 35–2 to advance a bill that would amend Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to prohibit warrantless queries for the communications of U.S. citizens and those located within the country—save for in emergency situations.
Dubbed the “Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act,” the bill would also limit the number of FBI personnel who can search the controversial surveillance database that Section 702 authorizes, among other reforms.
Under Section 702, U.S. officials are authorized to surveil the communications of noncitizens located outside of the United States without a warrant. But reports of FBI employees abusing the associated database to conduct unauthorized queries of U.S. persons have been numerous in recent years, sparking outrage and calls for reform.
With Section 702 set to expire on Dec. 31, members of both congressional chambers have been working to find a solution that would implement safeguards against such abuses while still allowing the tool’s use for national security purposes.
A Shared GoalAs various amendments to the bill were discussed and voted on, members repeatedly expressed how encouraging it was to see their colleagues working together toward a common goal.
“I want to say that I’m really heartened by what has gone on here over the course of many years, but also recent weeks of coming together in this committee over something extremely important,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) said.
“As lawmakers and members of the Judiciary Committee, it’s our job to strike the right balance between often competing interests. Today, we must safeguard both our national security as well as our constitutional right of privacy.”
Likewise, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) said she was “really proud” of the committee’s bipartisan efforts to produce a “sensible package of reforms.”
“We need to reauthorize Section 702,“ she said. ”We need this tool to prevent threats against the U.S. and to combat terrorism. But we also need constitutional guardrails, we need to respect the Fourth Amendment, and we need to protect Americans’ privacy from government surveillance.”
Among the adopted revisions was a proposal by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) to require the FBI to provide Congress with regular reports on how many FISA 702 queries of U.S. persons had been conducted. Although his amendment initially sought to require monthly reports, the committee eventually agreed to a quarterly frequency.
“We in Congress need to be more actively engaged in this particular question because it’s a fundamental duty for us to check the executive branch,” Mr. Roy said.
After the vote, Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) thanked the committee for its efforts, calling the amended bill a “good product.”
Competing LegislationThe advancement of the bill came a day before the House Intelligence Committee was set to hold a markup of another FISA reform bill sponsored by that committee’s chairman, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).
The most notable difference between Mr. Biggs’s bill and Mr. Turner’s “FISA Reform and Reauthorization Act” is the latter’s exclusion of the requirement of a warrant for queries of U.S. persons. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s version also excludes that provision.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a co-sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill, said he didn’t think requiring a warrant for such searches was necessary or beneficial.
“It’s not part of our bill, and there’s a reason for it,” he told The Epoch Times. “It basically emasculates the program. But I do think we need reforms.”
Meanwhile, another bill introduced in the Senate, the Government Surveillance Reform Act, boasts bipartisan support in both chambers. That bill would include the requirement of a warrant for queries of U.S. persons and would impose limits on executive orders authorizing the warrantless surveillance of Americans. It would also prohibit the government from buying such information from third parties.
“Americans know that it is possible to confront our country’s adversaries ferociously without throwing our constitutional rights in the trash can. But for too long surveillance laws have not kept up with changing times,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.
“Our bill continues to give government agencies broad authority to collect information on threats at home and abroad, including the ability to act quickly in emergencies and settle up with the court later. But it creates much stronger protections for the privacy of law-abiding Americans and restores the warrant protections that are at the heart of the Fourth Amendment.”