After passing a temporary extension in December, both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives passed a six year reauthorization of a controversial section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The section, Section 702, authorizes much of the warrantless global mass surveillance conducted by the United States intelligence community, which was exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Section 702 was not added to FISA until an amendment was passed in 2008. The temporary extension was set to expire on January 19th and just days before that deadline passed a bipartisan group of five Senators attempted to filibuster the legislation, which is known as the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017. The bipartisan group of Senators included three Democratic Senators, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and two Republican Senators, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Senator Steve Daines of Montana.
Legislators in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate tried to amend FISA to reform the law and work towards restoring the privacy rights that are supposed to be guaranteed and protected by the 4th amendment of the United States Constitution. One piece of legislation designed to reform FISA that lawmakers tried to pass in Congress was the Uniting and Strengthening America by Reforming and Improving the Government’s High-Tech Surveillance Act of 2017, better known as the USA RIGHTS Act. Many civil liberties and privacy rights organizations supported the USA RIGHTS Act and the bill received support from groups across the political spectrum, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), FreedomWorks, Restore the Fourth, Campaign for Liberty, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The USA Rights Act failed to pass in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The bipartisan filibuster in the Senate was crushed when Senators voted to end the debate with a motion for closure.
The House of Representatives passed FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 on January 11th by a vote of 256-164. The Senate passed the bill on January 18th by a vote of 65-34-1. President Donald Trump signed the six year reauthorization of FISA Section 702 on January 19th, the same day it was originally set to expire. “Just signed 702 Bill to reauthorize foreign intelligence collection. This is NOT the same FISA law that was so wrongly abused during the election. I will always do the right thing for our country and put the safety of the American people first,” President Trump tweeted. “The #FISA702 bill you signed is much WORSE than the FISA law allegedly abused during the election. The FISA law you mention requires probable cause and a warrant. #FISA702 authorizes unconstitutional, warrantless spying on Americans. Your action puts everyone’s privacy at risk,” Rep. Amash tweeted in response to the President’s tweet. Just a few months into his term as President, Trump’s administration came out strongly against reforming FISA.
On the day the Senate voted to pass the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, it was revealed that a top secret document outlining serious abuses of FISA that occurred was shown to members of Congress and could be released later this month. On the same day President Trump signed the reauthorization bill into law, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida’s 1st District went on television and mentioned the abuse of FISA. The document is alleged to be a House Intelligence Committee report which highlights abuse of FISA warrants. Trump seemingly meant to point out that spying on his presidential campaign was unrelated to Section 702, but as Representative Justin Amash of Michigan pointed out on Twitter, Section 702 surveillance is even worse, as it allows the NSA to collect huge amounts of internet traffic on people who are not even suspected of being involved in a crime.
Section 702 of FISA will remain law until at least December of 2023, when Congress will either reauthorize it or will allow the section of the law to expire. FISA was originally passed in 1978 in the wake of revelations of wrongdoing by the US intelligence community. Many have called the secret court, with secret interpretations of law, secret rulings, and secret general warrants to be unconstitutional. Many supporters of FISA claim that the law only captures surveillance on foreign suspects, but the fact is that the NSA is capturing the contents of Americans electronic communications and even diverts American internet traffic overseas in order to get around prohibitions on domestic spying.