The House intelligence committee approved a bill Friday to crack down on political “unmasking,” with Republicans saying the Obama administration abused foreign intelligence to embarrass private citizens and insisting the practice had to stop.
The new protections came as part of a broader bill that would renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the government’s chief snooping program for collecting communications of foreign agents and potential terrorists.
The bill cleared on a 13-8 vote that fell along party lines, with Democrats complaining about going after unmasking. Both sides accused each other of politicizing the issue and ruining the bipartisanship they used to share in their approach to national security.
“It was bipartisan while we had a Democratic president. And now it’s not bipartisan, and what changed? What changed was Jan. 20,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah Republican. “This committee has changed because we have a Republican president.”
Democrats said their complaints were procedural, not political, insisting they’d wanted hearings and didn’t want to mix the unmasking fight with what they said was a more important task of renewing the Section 702 powers, which will expire at the end of this year unless Congress acts.
Section 702 allows the government to collect communications of foreign targets, though Americans can be snared if they are communicating with a target.
The intelligence community wants the powers to be made permanent without any new restrictions, but both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill say the law needs safeguards to protect Americans.
Members of the intelligence committee said they generally agreed on those reforms, which require more transparency and restrict how Americans’ communications can be used against them.
But the unity broke down on unmasking.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the GOP was derailing the 702 reforms by tackling the politically charged issue of unmasking.
“We happen to think this program is too important to be dragged down by a debate over something else,” he said.
But his effort to strip out the unmasking safeguards failed on a voice vote.
Unmasking is the process of identifying an American whose name comes up in intelligence operations. Usually Americans enjoy anonymity protections, but top officials can demand to learn their names in some cases.
Republicans say the Obama administration appeared to use the tool far too frequently, with Samantha Powers, who was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., asking for some 300 unmaskings.
Unmasking alone isn’t illegal, but has become controversial, particularly after people associated with then-candidate Donald Trump had their communications leaked last year.
The biggest name to emerge was Michael Flynn, who was then a top national security adviser to Mr. Trump.
Ironically, just as the committee was acting Friday, Mr. Flynn was headed to federal court where he was expected to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about communications with Russian operatives made during the presidential transition.