FISA Reauthorization May Not Be Done Deal as Critics Rally, Trump Sounds Cautionary Note

March 12, 2020 Updated: March 12, 2020
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WASHINGTON—When the House of Representatives approved a bipartisan compromise measure on March 11 to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including the court at the center of the Spygate scandal, it appeared supporters were headed to a quick victory.

Even Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and one of President Donald Trump’s fiercest defenders during the Democratic impeachment drive that developed out of Spygate, called the measure “real reform,” although he acknowledged he wanted more FISA changes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.C.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced they support upper-chamber passage of the measure, known officially as the “USA Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2020.”

Attorney General William Barr added his voice to support for the bill that passed the House on a 278–136 vote, with most of the opposition coming from Republicans.

The present FISA law ends March 15, so the Senate must pass some version of the House bill and then have it signed by Trump to avoid a lapse in authorization.

But as Congress grappled March 12 with the coronavirus crisis while hurrying to finish up work before leaving town for next week’s recess, angry critics of the last-minute reauthorization were encouraged by a Trump tweet:

“Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!”

Trump was referring mainly to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who have been stalwart opponents of reauthorizing FISA without making substantial changes to protect against repeated abuses like those documented by Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Horowitz told Congress in 2019 that there were 17 instances of serious abuses by the DOJ and FBI in 2016 of FISA procedures designed to ensure against violations of individual Americans’ civil liberties.

The “significant errors and omissions” included failing to disclose to the FISA court, in requests for surveillance authority against former 2016 Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, that the requests were based almost entirely on a document that was compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and paid for by the Democratic National Committee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic presidential opponent.

Lee retweeted Trump’s declaration, then Paul issued a tweet of his own, declaring: “Senate Republican leaders are trying to ram through fake FISA amendments without real changes. I will object. I continue to stand with @realDonaldTrump.”

The biggest challenge now facing FISA renewal critics rests in that McConnell, a masterful legislative operator, controls the Senate. But McConnell can’t know with certainty what Trump will do and the March 15 deadline hasn’t gone away.

“They’re going to have to steamroll the dissenters, so even if it’s a done deal, even if they get something passed, they can’t get it passed in time to get it reauthorized by the 15th unless they’re going to keep the Senate in all weekend,” former Paul senior adviser Brian Darling told The Epoch Times on March 12.

Darling said Trump’s March 12 tweet was “reasonably favorable towards the Rand Paul-Mike Lee position, so that might throw a monkey wrench in what the leadership wants to do. They may be worried that Trump will change his mind and go from support to oppose.”

Darling said the last-minute push for FISA reauthorization is characteristic of Republican congressional leaders in recent years on many significant issues.

“It seems like this happens every couple of years,” Darling said. “They basically run right up to the deadline and then make some last-minute changes to these bills and then try to railroad them through, saying, ‘Oh, this is the best deal we can get. We don’t really like it, but it’s the best deal we can get.’”

Darling said none of the changes in the House-passed bill would have prevented the abuses documented by Horowitz.

“The reforms aren’t significant, they may help a little bit but they are window-dressing,” he said.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton agrees, telling The Epoch Times on March 12 that “it’s irresponsible for Congress to authorize these agencies who so abused the rule of law without knowing the full details of the crimes that have been committed.”

Fitton’s nonprofit government watchdog has used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to force exposure of many of the documents and details of both the Spygate scandal and the related controversy over the FBI’s handling of Clinton’s use of a private email system, in violation of multiple laws and regulations, while serving as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

“Look, what we need to do is start prosecuting people,” Fitton said. “The idea that you can extend FISA penalties to eight years instead of five and that will show them is meaningless if no one goes to jail, ever.”

Fitton said the ultimate solution to the FISA problem is to “end FISA.”

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc