Two months of drama in the House of Representatives over the soon‐to‐expire FISA Section 702 mass surveillance program came to an end this morning, with a bipartisan group of House members first defeating a FISA reform amendment (USA RIGHTS Act) offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R‑MI), then passing the GOP House leadership bill. The key votes in support of the GOP House leadership effort came from Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D‑CA) and House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D‑CA).
The progressive activist group Demand Progress, which spearheaded the campaign on the political left for meaningful surveillance reforms, issued a blistering statement after the vote, the key paragraph of which follows:
Demand Progress has opposed the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act from the start and has instead urged the House to pass strong reform legislation, like the USA RIGHTS Act, which was offered as an amendment but defeated 183–233, despite strong support from members of both parties. 55 Democrats voted against the amendment, where a swing of 26 votes would have meant its adoption and the protection of Americans’ privacy. The USA RIGHTS amendment would have enacted meaningful reforms to Section 702, which are imperative given the government’s historical abuse of surveillance authorities and the danger posed by future abuses.
Amash garnered 58 GOP votes for his amendment (offered with several other Democratic and Republican House members), by far his best showing since his first attempt to rein in federal mass surveillance programs in the summer of 2013, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations.
The FISA Amendments Act was first passed in 2008, when Pelosi was Speaker. In her floor speech in support of the FISA Amendments Act on June 20, 2008, Pelosi made this claim:
Some in the press have said that under this legislation, this bill would allow warrantless surveillance of Americans. That is not true. This bill does not allow warrantless surveillance of Americans. I just think we have to stipulate to some set of facts.
In fact, as Demand Progress noted in their 2017 report on Section 702, the FISA Court itself found the federal government had done exactly that in a number of cases. But as is so often the case in politics, it is emotion and perception, not facts and reason, that dominate debate on Capitol Hill. Today was another one of those days.