US House votes to renew spy programme despite confused Donald Trump condemning it on Twitter
US Representatives voted on Thursday to reauthorise a powerful government authority to conduct foreign surveillance on US soil, despite Donald Trump both condemning and supporting it on Twitter.
The House of Representatives voted 256-164 in favour of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments (FISA) Act of 2008, which extends for six years the government’s ability collect emails and other communications of foreign targets located outside the US from American companies.
But the fate of the programme appeared to be in jeopardy on Thursday, after the president tweeted his doubts about it, questioning his administration’s position after seeing a segment about it on Fox News.
“‘House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,’” Trump wrote headline. “This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phoney Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?”
Trump attempted to walk back the tweet about 90 minutes later, urging legislators to approve the reauthorization – but top Democrats seized on the confusion to demand the withdrawal of the controversial bill.
With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
Top Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff of California called on Republican leaders in the House to withdraw the bill from consideration “in light of the irresponsible and inherently contradictory messages coming out of the White House today.”
His thoughts echo chose of privacy groups – and go against those of the intelligence community, which considers the programme, called Section 702 after the part of the act that established it, its key national security surveillance tool.
Republicans seemed undeterred by Democrats’ demands, going ahead with planned votes on the bill and a sole amendment to it on Thursday.
The vote on the bill sets up the measure for consideration in the Senate, where leaders have said they believe they can pass it before the programme’s statutory authorisation expires on January 19.
But the president’s mixed messages sent shock waves through House Republicans, who were gathered for a regular conference meeting when the first of the president’s tweets came out.
Trump then called House Speaker Paul Ryan and they spoke for half an hour. Later, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy alerted the Republican conference that the president had tweeted again, calming lawmakers’ nerves.
But top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees were quick to leap on the first tweet as “irresponsible” and “untrue.”
“FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted after Trump’s post.
In his second tweet Trump seemed to backtrack, pushing for the act to be re-upped.
“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
It is unclear how Trump “personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office,” since the bill’s author, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of California, stripped the major changes to unmasking procedures from the measure before presenting it for a vote by the full House.
Senior government officials can ask spy agencies to unmask the names of Americans or US organisations if they believe that will help them better understand the underlying intelligence.
Trump, and Nunes, accused the Obama administration of improperly revealing the identities of members of the president’s transition team.
It is unclear what the dossier has to do with unmasking or the reauthorization of the spying programme, but Trump has been repeatedly denouncing it in recent days.
Both Republicans and Democrats have pushed back against linking the controversy over unmasking to the FISA programme the House is seeking to extend.
On Thursday, White House cyber coordinator Rob Joyce said there have “been no cases of 702 used improperly for political purposes.”
Trump’s administration has pushed for the FISA programme to be reauthorised, with FBI Director Christopher Wray calling it a valuable tool to fight terrorism.
The White House has issued statements this week and asked lawmakers to reauthorise it, even urging members late Wednesday night to reject a proposed amendment to the measure that would weaken the bill and likely kill its chances of passage in the Senate.
Trump’s tweet came soon after a Fox and Friends segment that highlighted the FISA programme, calling it “controversial.”
His first tweet seemed to side more with civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, House Democrats and others, such as Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have pushed for less invasive measures.