Push for More Privacy Protections Throws Surveillance Bill Talks Into Disarray

WASHINGTON — An urgent push by Congress to renew several expiring F.B.I. surveillance powers foundered on Wednesday, as House Democrats feuded privately over stronger privacy protections and Republicans remained uncertain about what President Trump, a vocal skeptic of government spying, would accept.

The powers — a set of tools put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to aid F.B.I. investigations of terrorism and espionage suspects — will expire on March 15 unless Congress moves to extend them. But a range of surveillance critics, from progressive civil liberties advocates to conservative allies of Mr. Trump outraged by the Russia inquiry, see legislation to do so as a potential vehicle to force new restrictions.

On Wednesday, a carefully brokered attempt by House Democrats to extend the programs with some new limits collapsed just hours before the House Judiciary Committee was set to begin debate. A hearing to consider the measure was abruptly canceled, 65 minutes before it was scheduled to begin, after a liberal-leaning Democratic lawmaker challenged it as not going far enough.

Across the Capitol, with just over two weeks to go before the expiration of the authorities, Senate Republicans have yet to resolve their own differences over the issue. Some Republican lawmakers have called for sweeping new restrictions, while others want to extend the laws without any changes.

Hanging over the entire endeavor is Mr. Trump, a wild card in any legislative negotiation who is particularly unpredictable on the issue of government surveillance. The president has frequently complained about government surveillance — he once claimed falsely that Barack Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower — and raged over how the F.B.I. obtained a warrant to wiretap his former campaign adviser Carter Page when it was investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Those long-simmering gripes have raised doubts even among Mr. Trump’s allies about what he would sign into law.

As time runs out to extend the powers, lawmakers and aides in both parties and on both sides of the Capitol are increasingly worried that the F.B.I. authorities will expire amid political paralysis. They include the ability to collect business records relevant to a national security investigation, to conduct “roving” wiretaps that enable investigators to swiftly follow suspects who change phones and to use “lone wolf” wiretaps for terrorism suspects who lack ties to a foreign group like Al Qaeda.

The House Judiciary Committee had been set on Wednesday to consider a bill that would extend the three expiring provisions while terminating legal authority for a dysfunctional and defunct N.S.A. call records program.

That measure, crafted by Representatives Jerrold Nadler of New York and Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, would also make several other adjustments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which governs national security wiretapping on domestic soil and has become a political flash point in the wake of the Trump-Russia investigation.

A dispute over whether that bill went far enough erupted on Wednesday when Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, made clear that she would offer a series of amendments to curtail surveillance. Mr. Nadler, Mr. Schiff and Speaker Nancy Pelosi had rejected the changes as going too far, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Ms. Lofgren’s proposals, which are backed by civil liberties advocates and some Republican allies of Mr. Trump, included requiring the appointment of a “friend of the court” to critique the government’s arguments in every application for the FISA court’s permission to wiretap an American. They would also ban the use of business-records collection orders to obtain people’s cellphone location, web browsing and search history data.

Without the changes, which she had tried to include in the bill during a round of negotiations with Mr. Nadler, Ms. Lofgren said the proposed limits on the government’s surveillance powers would amount to little.

“I don’t think I am an unreasonable person, but what was advanced, to me, was so pitiful that it is not even worth pursuing,” Ms. Lofgren said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

“We have the opportunity to reform the system,” she added. “We should take that opportunity.”

Her refusal to back down posed a challenge to Mr. Nadler, raising the possibility that liberal-leaning Democrats on the Judiciary Committee would team with Republicans skeptical about government surveillance to force through the changes Ms. Lofgren wanted. That would have broken the deal Mr. Nadler had negotiated with Mr. Schiff, who is allied with centrist Democrats with more hawkish positions on national security issues.

Mr. Nadler canceled the session rather than allow that to happen. Aides to him and Mr. Schiff said they would continue to work with Ms. Lofgren on the legislation, but warned that the dispute increased the chances Congress would come under pressure to simply extend the authorities without changes.

Adding to the confusion, the Trump administration’s official position is that Congress should extend the expiring laws without any changes — the kind of “clean extension” that Attorney General William P. Barr urged Republicans senators to back at a closed-door lunch on Tuesday.

Mr. Barr is said to have assured Republican senators that he could go a long way in placating Mr. Trump by making administrative, rather than statutory, changes to FISA procedures.

But it is not clear that Mr. Trump supports his administration’s stated position, and he has demonstrated little understanding of the nuances of FISA, a notoriously complex law. The president has privately said he would prefer to do away with FISA altogether, according to people familiar with the matter — even though the part used to wiretap Mr. Page is not among the expiring provisions.

As the deadline nears, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not scheduled any hearing to consider legislation to extend the provisions.

Several congressional staff members from both parties said it appeared that Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, might seek to jam through an extension with no changes — perhaps until the end of the year, or even for several years — by attaching it to unrelated legislation.

“I hope that when the Senate deals with these expiring provisions in a couple weeks we can continue to have them in law, which will provide maximum protection for the American people,” Mr. McConnell said this week.

Still, to become law, any such legislation would require 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster, the acquiescence of House Democrats and ultimately the signature of Mr. Trump.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.