House lawmakers admit to being 'held hostage' over surveillance reforms

Congressional leadership gave lawmakers an option: pass a weak surveillance reform bill, or nothing.

(Image: file photo/CBS News)

Last week, House Judiciary Committee members voted -- some reluctantly -- to pass a bill for the first time since the Edward Snowden disclosures that many saw as "reform" in name only.

After a lengthy markup process, a far-reaching amendment aimed at curtailing the government's ability to spy on Americans was dropped at the last moment. The bipartisan amendment, proposed by pro-privacy lawmakers Ted Poe and Zoe Lofgren, would fix the so-called "backdoor search" loophole to prevent the government from searching communications on Americans without a warrant because the intended targets were ostensibly foreign.

Rumors had it that if lawmakers passed the amendment -- which already had broad support from privacy and rights groups, the committee's bill would be scrapped by House leadership entirely, and would be blocked from ever reaching a floor vote.

"We have been assured in explicit terms that if we adopt this amendment today, leadership will not permit this bill to proceed to the house floor," said ranking committee member John Conyers.

The alternative is that they defy the leadership, pass the amendment, and the bill fails in favor of a more extreme bill from the Senate, which critics argue would reauthorize existing laws almost in their entirety.

Faced with those option, unsurprisingly, the amendment failed in a 12-21 vote -- including five Republicans who voted against party lines. Twenty lawmakers had previously voted against closing the loophole.

Several lawmakers expressed their frustration at the apparent meddling.

"I resent being held hostage by leadership that does not know the intensity of the work and the responsibilities of the judiciary committee," said Sheila Jackson Lee, a long-time Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, who later voted down the amendment to ensure the bill passed the committee.

Jim Jordan, a Republican, called the Poe-Lofgren effort a "darned good amendment," and voted for it, defying the wishes of his party's leadership.

The intense rounds of debates and hearings come just weeks before several programs authorized under the controversial section 702 powers of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will expire on December 31 unless new provisions are passed. These are the same powers that authorized the controversial PRISM program, which collects data from servers of internet giants, the massive bulk collection of internet traffic, and the government's computer and network hacking powers.

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Several lawmakers see the effort as the one and only chance to enact meaningful changes to protect Americans from surveillance who have been swept up in the intelligence community's dragnets.

It wasn't that the so-called Poe-Lofgren amendment was particularly controversial. In fact, the House has passed the provisions of the amendment several times before.

Sources suggested that the committee's chairman, Bob Goodlatte, who co-sponsored the committee's bill along with Conyers, faced pressure from House leadership, notably Paul Ryan, to pass a meager reform bill. (A spokesperson for Goodlatte, who will retire next year, declined to comment.)

It's not just the intelligence agencies who don't want to see changes to their current powers. Both the House and Senate intelligence committee chairmen, Devin Nunes and Richard Burr respectively, who are charged with overseeing the government's use of its foreign intelligence collection powers, want to keep the powers largely intact, too.

The White House has also called for a clean, permanent reauthorization of the government's powers which is what it would get with the Senate Intelligence Committee's reauthorization bill. Critics say the proposed law would amount to a "domestic spying bill, which would retain and enshrine much of today's powers into law for a further eight years.

But even hardline intelligence community advocates, like former committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, are pushing the committee's current leadership into supporting a fix for the "backdoor search" loophole.

She said earlier this month: "In order to access the content of an American's communications, the government is required to get a probable cause warrant. The same standard should apply to Section 702."

The third option is Ron Wyden and Rand Paul's sweeping reform bill, currently before the Senate. While the bill offers several key protections for Americans, even supporters say the bill has almost no chance of succeeding.

A vote on the House floor is expected, though not promised by leadership, in the coming weeks, and some see the Senate's bill as a White House-backed effort that will largely keep the status quo should the House bill fail.

With time running out, even the smallest reforms will be seen as better than nothing. But faced with the options of compromising or complete failure, lawmakers will have to settle with "that'll do."

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Zack Whittaker can be reached securely on Signal and WhatsApp at 646-755–8849, and his PGP fingerprint for email is: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

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