US House of Representatives reauthorizes controversial surveillance law

The US House of Representatives passed on Friday a two-year reauthorization of an expiring warrantless surveillance law that had been stalled earlier in the week. The passed bill extends a contentious provision called Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, also known as FISA.

Wiretapping for national security investigations involving Americans or individuals within the country falls under the traditional FISA framework, which mandates warrants from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). In contrast, Section 702 permits the government to gather communications from foreign targets abroad through US communications companies like AT&T and Alphabet for foreign intelligence or counterterrorism purposes without the need for a warrant, even when they are in communication with Americans. This provision legalized a variant of the warrantless wiretapping program initiated by former President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, called the Patriot Act.

Ahead of Friday’s vote, loud voices echoed from both sides when a previous version of a FISA bill, mere days prior, fell apart on the House floor following former President Donald Trump’s encouragement for lawmakers to “kill” FISA. For a long time, civil liberties advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have also been pushing to dismantle Section 702 in order to safeguard privacy rights.

However, national security officials contend that such a measure would severely impair the program, as they often employ it during the initial stages of investigations. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Biden, told reporters on Tuesday, “If we lost 702, we would lose vital insight into precisely the threats Americans expect us in government to identify and counter.”

Up until almost the final moment on Friday, uncertainty loomed over the final form of the bill as the House deliberated on a series of proposed amendments. In a tense vote, lawmakers narrowly rejected a proposal prohibiting Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents and intelligence analysts from querying the database of collected messages using Americans’ identifiers—such as email addresses—without first obtaining warrants.

The revised FISA bill entails a two-year reauthorization instead of the initially proposed five years. Although the bill does not include the long-desired warrant requirement advocated by civil liberties groups, it does introduce numerous new constraints on how the FBI can access Americans’ information within the database of communications collected through the program.

The bill is now on its way to the Senate, where it must secure passage by April 19 and receive President Biden’s signature to meet the deadline.