Overhaul of Spy Law Widens Trump-Congress Rift and Shows GOP Divide

Chris Strohm, Steven T. Dennis and Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- Lawmakers called off a hearing on legislation to overhaul U.S. surveillance powers for the first time in years, escalating a messy fight that could unravel political alliances and expose fractures within the Trump administration.

The House Judiciary Committee was planning to take up the measure that would amend sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA -- the law the FBI uses to ask a special court for secret authorization to conduct electronic surveillance of people in the U.S. suspected of posing risks to national security.

The new legislation could provide Republican supporters of President Donald Trump a chance to rewrite the rules to prevent a repeat of what he calls “FISA Court abuse” in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and whether those around him participated in the meddling.

But action on the bill, designed to extend several provisions of the act that will expire on March 15, was put off Wednesday because Democratic committee leaders feared amendments being offered by Representative Zoe Lofgren, of California, a fellow Democrat, would doom chances for passage on the House floor, according to a Democratic aide.

Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said he plans to work out the differences with Lofgren and is confident legislation will pass before the provisions lapse. Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the panel’s top Republican, said in a statement that “Democrats are again putting our national security at risk with their stall tactics.”

While Trump has made unsupported accusations about misuse of the FISA court -- including that President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower in New York in 2016 -- bipartisan calls for change are driven by a scathing report in December from the Justice Department’s inspector general. He found the FBI made multiple, significant errors in obtaining wiretaps to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in 2016 and 2017.

The scope of changes to the FISA process is very much in debate. But most lawmakers agree that some legislation is needed because pf the three provisions that expire on March 15, including one that lets the FBI obtain a wide range of documents for national security investigations. The other expiring provisions allow the FBI to conduct roving wiretaps and to keep track of so-called lone wolf terrorists.

A draft bill written by House Democrats would renew the three expiring provisions. It also would let the FISA court have an outside official review more types of wiretap applications -- including those that concern surveillance on political campaigns. The bill also would require the director of national intelligence to publicly release significant decisions and opinions within 180 days.

‘Serious Abuse’

Some Republican lawmakers say that doesn’t go far enough to prevent another probe like those in the early days of the Russia investigation, which was eventually taken over by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“Democrats are completely ignoring the serious abuse committed against President Trump’s campaign in 2016,” Collins said. “In order to restore the American people’s faith in our premier law enforcement agency, we must reform FISA to ensure our intelligence community and FBI are deterred from ever wielding their significant power to spy on American citizens.”

But Attorney General William Barr told Republican senators on Tuesday that Congress should simply renew the three expiring provisions by March 15 without making other changes, according to a Justice Department official. Instead, Barr said he would make administrative changes to the electronic surveillance powers, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing pending legislation.

Barr said he was conveying the joint position of the National Security Council, intelligence agencies and the FBI, the official said. Barr would consider legislative proposals if lawmakers are determined to make them but first wants to see the three provisions renewed, the official said.

Similarly Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, said the expiring provisions should simply be extended as he considers broader changes. “I need to find out what happened before I make any recommendations on statutory changes,” Graham said.

Trump’s Role

It’s not clear if the president will go along with that consensus within his administration after several years of angry tweeting about spying abuses and what he sees as anti-Trump bias among many in the FBI and Justice Department. The president may consider it politically untenable to keep the FISA law unchanged, especially if conservative lawmakers go on Fox News to demand limiting it.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has long sought to rein in FISA powers, told reporters he would try to block a reauthorization of the expiring provisions if the legislation doesn’t include changes.

“It’s very important that we actually change the law, that we forbid a secret court that’s intended to spy on foreigners from ever spying on a presidential campaign again,” Paul said. He said he’s working with Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, as well as House lawmakers, on a strategy for handling the extension of expiring FISA authorities.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said he opposes a simple extension of FISA as favored by Senate Republicans because “the process needs to be substantially reformed.” Once the House passes a bill, lawmakers will “see where can find common ground,” Jeffries of New York told reporters on Wednesday.

Negotiations on the FISA bill among Democrats have been going on for months between Nadler, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and other top House Democrats, according to the Democratic aide.

The three expiring provisions didn’t have anything to do with the abuses uncovered by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee at a Feb. 5 hearing. Wray called for lawmakers to permanently reauthorize the provisions.

The draft House Judiciary bill would reauthorize the three expiring provisions until Dec. 1, 2023. The bill also would repeal the National Security Agency’s authority to collect telephone call records on Americans. The agency last year voluntary suspended the collection of the data, which includes numbers dialed and call durations.

The program that analyzed logs of phone calls and texts cost $100 million from 2015 to 2019 and generated only a single significant investigation, according to a recently declassified study reported this week by the New York Times.

But the divisions over FISA’s future may prove too difficult to overcome by March 15, forcing lawmakers to reauthorize the provisions for a short time while the fight continues.

--With assistance from Billy House, Erik Wasson and James Rowley.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at sdennis17@bloomberg.net;Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert, John Harney

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