Trump Opposed House FISA Bill, Leaving Measure to Lapse; McConnell Expected to Try Again This Week

By Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
Mark Tapscott is an award-winning investigative editor and reporter who covers Congress, national politics, and policy for The Epoch Times. Mark was admitted to the National Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Hall of Fame in 2006 and he was named Journalist of the Year by CPAC in 2008. He was a consulting editor on the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Other Than Honorable” in 2014.
March 13, 2020Updated: March 16, 2020

WASHINGTON—An effort on March 12 by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to extend Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authority for 45 days to allow time for further negotiations on reforms was blocked by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Lee, who with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposed a House-passed FISA extension, asked for unanimous consent to the additional time to offer amendments to a House-passed FISA reauthorization. The amendments would be to protect individual Americans’ civil liberties.

“All I ask is to give us a few weeks. Let’s take 45 days. Give the Senate a chance to deal with the immediate crises associated with the coronavirus and then a chance for us, in a timely fashion, to review the [House] bill and consider our own amendments to it, bipartisan amendments from people who have reached across the aisle in an effort to make this bill better,” Lee said on the Senate floor.

But Burr would have none of it, declaring in response to Lee, “I am not going to have a 45-day extension. I will let us go dark. I will let us go dark, and if there is a need, the president, by executive order, can do it for whatever period people think they are willing to let it expire.”

Burr said no extension was needed because the Senate will debate “every one of the amendments of Sen. Lee and the list of people he gave, and I think that they will be struck down.”

The North Carolina Republican was referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) plan to bring the Senate back into session March 16 to consider the House bill, known officially as “The USA Freedom Act of 2020.”

The House measure is supported by Attorney General William Barr and House Judiciary Committee ranking minority member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

But Lee, Paul, multiple House Republicans, and Tom Fitton, president of the nonprofit government watchdog Judicial Watch, say the House bill ignores reforms needed to end abuses like those detailed by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Lee told colleagues on March 12 that President Donald Trump told him he opposed the House bill, which raised the specter of a presidential veto if the Senate approved the measure without further amendments.

Paul issued a statement after the Lee–Burr floor confrontation, declaring that, “As President Trump has repeatedly stated, we should not reauthorize these expiring surveillance powers without real reform. After all, we have learned about how government has abused its authority, including spying on President Trump’s 2016 campaign, neither a clean extension, nor the window-dressing offered by the U.S. House, which will not stop future abuses, are acceptable.”

Paul said the House version “tells us to trust government to police itself,” but he prefers to “instead to trust the Founders’ guidance in the Bill of Rights.”

Burr’s claim that Trump could simply extend FISA by executive order drew a quick rebuke by a Senate Democrat who has joined Lee and Paul in opposing major provisions of the controversial law that was adopted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“On the floor of the U.S. Senate today, Intelligence Committee Chairman Burr said that the president can disregard the FISA law altogether and spy on Americans with no judicial or congressional oversight whatsoever,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.

“This position, which is shared by Attorney General Barr, is an invitation to lawlessness, to a police state and to dictatorship. Congress simply has no choice but to stop this. The bipartisan Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act includes a critical provision ensuring that the president cannot spy on Americans outside the law.”

Wyden added that “this provision must be added as an amendment to the flawed House FISA bill. The laws governing surveillance on Americans are not optional.”

The House bill retains three controversial FISA provisions with minor changes, including allowing the FBI to secretly obtain business records of individuals in national security investigations, the “roving wiretap” that permits officials to maintain surveillance on a foreign individual using multiple phones, and the “lone wolf” provision that allows federal officials to collect evidence from multiple sources on any suspected individual, including U.S. citizens.

The most significant reform in the House bill is a provision requiring the Attorney General to sign off on any investigation involving any candidate for federal office or an incumbent officeholder.

“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,” Judicial Watch’s Fitton told The Epoch Times on March 12.

“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.”

Judicial Watch has used the Freedom of Information Act to force public exposure of many documents related to FISA abuses.

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