House passes NSA spying bill after Trump tweets cause confusion

Published 11/01/2018 in Cybersecurity, Technology

House passes NSA spying bill after Trump tweets cause confusion
FILE PHOTO: A man is silhouetted near logo of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

(Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill to renew the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, overcoming objections from privacy advocates and confusion prompted by morning tweets from President Donald Trump that initially questioned the spying tool.

The legislation, which passed 256-164 and split party lines, is the culmination of a years-long debate in Congress on the proper scope of U.S. intelligence collection – one fueled by the 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance secrets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Senior Democrats in the House had urged cancellation of the vote after Trump appeared to cast doubt on the merits of the program, but Republicans forged ahead.

Trump initially wrote on Twitter that the surveillance program, first created in secret after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later legally authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), had been used against him but later said it was needed.

Some conservative, libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats attempted to persuade colleagues to include more privacy protections. They failed on Thursday to pass an amendment to include a requirement for a warrant before the NSA or other intelligence agencies could scrutinize communications belonging to an American whose data is incidentally collected.

Thursday’s vote was a major blow to privacy and civil liberties advocates, who just two years ago celebrated passage of a law effectively ending the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone call records, another top-secret program exposed by Snowden.

The bill as passed by the House would extend the NSA’s spying program for six years with minimal changes. Some privacy groups said it would actually expand the NSA’s surveillance powers.

Most lawmakers expect it to become law, although it still would require Senate approval and Trump’s signature. Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden immediately vowed to filibuster the measure, but it was unclear whether they could persuade enough colleagues to force changes.

Move to require warrants for searches of U.S. data fails in House

Trump’s tweets on surveillance marked the second time this week that he appeared to veer from the administration’s position. During a meeting on Tuesday to discuss immigration with a bipartisan group of legislators he initially voiced support when Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein suggested a “clean” bill to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pointed out that a “clean” bill would not include the security and border wall that Trump has insisted be part of any immigration plan.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters there was no contradiction in Trump’s tweets on the surveillance program and that he was voicing broader concerns about FISA.

Without congressional action, legal support for Section 702 will expire next week, although intelligence officials say it could continue through April.

Section 702 allows the NSA to eavesdrop on vast amounts of digital communications from foreigners living outside the United States through U.S. companies such as Facebook Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google.

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