Conservative revolt in the House blocks effort to reauthorize a key U.S. spy tool

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By ERIC TUCKER and FARNOUSH AMIRI

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill that would reauthorize a crucial national security surveillance program was blocked Wednesday by a conservative revolt, pushing the prospects of final passage into uncertainty amid a looming deadline. The legislative impasse follows an edict earlier in the day from former President Donald Trump to “kill” the measure.

The breakdown comes months after a similar process to reform and reauthorize the surveillance program fell apart before it even reached the House floor. Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has called the program “critically important” but has struggled to find a path forward on the issue, which has been plagued by partisan bickering for years. The procedural vote to bring up the bill Wednesday failed 193-228, with nearly 20 Republicans voting no.

“We’re going to regroup and consider next steps,” Johnson told reporters after the vote failed. “We can’t allow this important provision to expire.”

It marks the latest blow to Johnson’s leadership as he faces being ousted from his job in the same stunning fashion as his predecessor. Hours before the vote, the Republican leader made a final push urging for passage, saying Congress must “address these abuses” without cutting off the surveillance program entirely.

The bill’s failure also reflected the dramatic ideological shift in the Republican Party, which for years after the Sept. 11 attacks supported expansive surveillance in the name of national security but has more recently walked back from that position thanks in part to lingering outrage over the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign. That skepticism of the government’s spy powers has created an unusual alliance between far-right Republicans and civil liberties-minded Democrats.

The bill in question would renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country to gather foreign intelligence. The reauthorization is currently tied to a series of reforms aimed at satisfying critics who complained of civil liberties violations against Americans.

But Republican opponents have complained that those changes did not go far enough. Among the detractors are some of Johnson’s harshest critics, members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, who have railed the speaker for reaching across the aisle several times since taking the gavel in October to carry out the basic functions of the government.

It remains unclear now if the proposal, backed by the Biden administration and Johnson, would eventually have enough votes to advance.

Though the program would technically expire on April 19, the Biden administration said it expects its authority to collect intelligence to remain operational for at least another year, thanks to an earlier opinion from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees surveillance applications.

U.S. officials have said the tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions and foreign espionage and has also produced intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations.

But the administration’s efforts to secure reauthorization of the program have encountered fierce, and bipartisan, pushback, with Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden who have long championed civil liberties aligning with Republican supporters of Trump, who in a post on Truth Social on Wednesday stated incorrectly that Section 702 had been used to spy on his presidential campaign.

“Kill FISA,” Trump wrote in all capital letters. “It was illegally used against me, and many others. They spied on my campaign.” A former adviser to his 2016 presidential campaign was targeted over potential ties to Russia under a different section of the surveillance law.

A specific area of concern for lawmakers has centered on the FBI’s use of the vast intelligence repository to look up information about Americans and others in the U.S. Though the surveillance program only targets non-Americans in other countries, it also collects communications of Americans when they are in contact with those targeted foreigners.

In the past year, U.S. officials have revealed a series of abuses and mistakes by FBI analysts in improperly querying the intelligence repository for information about Americans or others in the U.S, including about a member of Congress and participants in the racial justice protests of 2020 and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Those violations have led to demands for the FBI to have a warrant before conducting database queries on Americans, which FBI director Chris Wray has warned would effectively gut the effectiveness of the program and was also legally unnecessary since the database contained already lawfully collected information.

“While it is imperative that we ensure this critical authority of 702 does not lapse, we also must not undercut the effectiveness of this essential tool with a warrant requirement or some similar restriction, paralyzing our ability to tackle fast-moving threats,” Wray said in a speech Tuesday.