House Votes Against Restraining Warrantless Government Surveillance
“This is our time to stand up for the American people. I’m sick of going home and telling them that neither side wanted to defend their rights.”
The House rejected an amendment on Tuesday that would have limited the government’s ability to conduct warrantless surveillance on the American public. The amendment, cosponsored by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), was voted down by a nearly equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
Rep. Amash, the only Republican lawmaker to openly denounce President Trump’s conduct as “impeachable,” described the bipartisan rejection of his bill as a perfect example of “what’s wrong with Washington:”
“We can see what’s wrong with Washington right here. We have Republicans for months saying “We’re worried about FISA abuse. FISA’s out of control!” Here we are trying to limit FISA and they’re running against it. They’re saying “No, we can’t limit FISA!” Democrats say, “We want to hold the president in check. Executive power is out of control.” We have an amendment to hold the president in check. This is our time to stand up for the American people. I’m sick of going home and telling them that neither side wanted to defend their rights.”
The bill would have curtailed Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which authorizes warrantless surveillance of foreign targets of interest who may be a threat to the national security of the United States. But in 2013, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that Section 702 of FISA is also used to collect private information of US citizens who communicate with non-US citizens or travel outside the country, regardless of whether or not they are suspected of a crime.
Privacy and civil rights activists have widely condemned warrantless government surveillance as a violation of the 4th Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. But despite many Republican lawmakers repeatedly expressing outrage about FISA’s government overreach, and many Democrats expressing concern over the Trump administration’s willingness to abuse its vast surveillance powers, the House voted to maintain the status quo 253-175.
126 Democrats and 127 Republicans voted against the amendment, drawing the ire of numerous civil rights groups.
“It’s good to know that House Democrats like Adam Schiff are ‘resisting’ Trump by voting to ensure that he has limitless authority to conduct mass warrantless surveillance. The Democrats who voted against this common sense amendment just threw immigrants, LGBTQ folks, activists, journalists, and political dissidents under the bus by voting to rubberstamp the Trump administration’s Orwellian domestic spying capabilities,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight For The Future, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving digital freedom.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was among 42 civil society groups who signed a letter in support of the Amash-Lofgren proposal, stating, “We represent a cross-partisan coalition of civil liberties, transparency and government oversight organizations committed to reining in the warrantless surveillance of people in the United States.”
The ACLU has recently brought attention to new technologies, like face surveillance, car technology and advanced surveillance cameras, that would give the government unprecedented power without regulation.
In the senate, Sen Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are sponsoring the “Protecting Data At The Border Act,” which would require the government to have a warrant to surveil American citizen’s digital devices.
“The bipartisan bill prevents law enforcement agencies from continuing to take advantage of the so-called border search “exception” in order to conduct warrantless searches of Americans’ phones and laptops. These searches have quadrupled in recent years, and have been used to target journalists and activists who were not suspected of crimes. Moreover, such searches are extraordinarily invasive, as modern devices store all manner of highly personal information including pictures, videos, texts, emails, location data, Internet search histories, calendars and other data,” wrote the senators in a statement.
The Amash-Lofgren amendment was packaged in an appropriations bill that funds multiple government departments, such as the Labor Department and the Department of Defense.
Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) was among the Democratic lawmakers who rejected the amendment, arguing its significant subject matter demands a longer deliberation process.
“I would point out … that this is an appropriations bill, this is not an authorization bill. The amendment is a serious change in policy and deserves more than 10 minutes of debate in this chamber,” said Visclosky.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has lived in exile in Moscow since leaking highly-classified information on FISA in 2013, spoke last month about his continued fear of the government and Big Tech’s power to shape society through mass surveillance.
“These institutions have been able to transform this greatest virtue of humanity—which is this desire to interact and to connect and to cooperate and to share—to transform all of that into a weakness,” said Snowden, speaking from Moscow in a livestream address to Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“And now these institutions, which are both commercial and governmental, have built upon that and… have structuralized that and entrenched it to where it has become now the most effective means of social control in the history of our species,” Snowden continued.
“Maybe you’ve heard about it. This is mass surveillance.”