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  • Marijan Hassan - Tech Journalist

US House approves bill to renew controversial surveillance program

The House has greenlit a bill aiming to reauthorize and reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The legislation passed with a vote of 273-147 and is now awaiting Senate approval, where its destiny hangs in the balance. As the program's expiration looms on April 19, pressure mounts on Congress to act swiftly and decisively.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act enables the U.S. government to gather communications of non-citizens beyond its borders for foreign intelligence objectives without needing a warrant. However, securing reauthorization has always encountered bipartisan resistance, with concerns revolving around potential abuses and missteps by involved authorities.

Trump for instance has been very vocal against the regulation saying it was used to illegally spy on his campaign.

House Speaker Mike Johnson spearheaded a revised proposition, which not only extends but also reforms a segment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, specifically Section 702. Notably, the reauthorization spans a condensed period of two years, a strategic move possibly aimed at aligning future discussions with the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House.

Amid the deliberations, an additional clause, aiming to terminate warrantless surveillance of Americans, was proposed but failed to garner a majority of the votes required to pass at the House.

There’s been growing skepticism surrounding government surveillance powers which has led to a drawn-out negotiation over what a legislative overhaul of the FISA surveillance program should look like. It even led to a division in the House when 19 Republicans broke with their party to prevent the bill from coming up for a vote.

Nevertheless, the shortened time frame of the revised proposal managed to ease some of the resistance.

“The two-year timeframe is a much better landing spot because it gives us two years to see if any of this works rather than kicking it out five years,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said Thursday. “They say these reforms are going to work. Well, I guess we’ll find out.”

To assuage some of these reservations, Johnson also plans to bring forward next week a separate proposal that would close a loophole that allows U.S. officials to collect data on Americans from big tech companies without a warrant.

Despite the impending expiration, the Biden administration anticipates the continuity of its intelligence gathering authority for at least another year, thanks to an opinion earlier this month from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which receives surveillance applications. But officials say that court approval shouldn’t be a substitute for congressional authorization, especially since communications companies could cease cooperation with the government.


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