- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2017

The House intelligence committee has moved to crack down on “unmasking” of Americans whose communications are snared in foreign intelligence gathering, as lawmakers approved a bill to renew the government’s most important international surveillance program.

The fight over unmasking sparked a deep split in the usually bipartisan committee, with Democrats complaining the new protections appeared to be a political slam at the Obama administration, which unmasked — and somehow leaked — the communications of at least one top Trump campaign figure.

Democrats said unmasking was tangential to the matter at hand, which is extending Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows for collection of communications of foreign targets — and of Americans, if they are communicating with those targets.

Without action by Congress, 702 powers expire at the end of this year, and the intelligence community is desperate to get a renewal, though both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill say it will only be with new reforms to protect Americans.

The shape of those reforms, though, has proved divisive.

The House intelligence committee bill, which the panel passed Friday, joins a crowded marketplace with bills from the Senate intelligence and House Judiciary committees, each of them containing different restrictions and timelines for Section 702.

The Judiciary Committee bill goes the furthest to constrain Section 702, imposing new controls on how Americans’ communications can be used, and prohibiting collection of “abouts” communications where a target is mentioned, but isn’t the sender or receiver. The number of Americans whose data is scooped up would have to be reported to Congress, as would those who are unmasked.

The senators’ bill, meanwhile, tacks more toward the intelligence community’s desires, giving a seven-year extension of Section 702 and allowing “abouts” collection to continue.

The House intelligence committee measure allows a four-year extension of Section 702, imposes some restrictions on the querying and use of the information collected, and temporarily halts “abouts” collection.

Both House bills were debated and voted on in open session, while the Senate’s bill was marked up behind closed doors.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, and the committee’s top Democrat Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, said their bill has the broadest support, and urged others to get on board their version.

“Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee worked for months with civil liberties advocates, Members of Congress — including members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — the intelligence community, and other stakeholders on legislation to reform and reauthorize FISA Section 702,” Mr. Goodlatte and Mr. Nadler said in a joint statement.

None of the bills is good enough for civil liberties groups, though they are generally less disappointed with the House Judiciary bill than the rest.

The unmasking provisions in the House intelligence bill add a new element to the debate.

“We happen to think this program is too important to be dragged down by a debate over something else,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who led his fellow Democrats in opposing the bill.

Despite their opposition the bill cleared on a 13-8 vote, with Republicans saying Democrats had injected partisanship into the debate by ignoring the Obama administration’s use of unmasking.

“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.”

Although unmasking is not illegal, Republicans argued it was used too many times during the Obama administration, with Samantha Powers, who was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., asking for some 300 unmaskings.

The most infamous example of unmasking was President Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had his identity unmasked by an Obama administration official when he was speaking with the Russian ambassador.

On Friday, Flynn plead guilty to lying to the FBI about some of his conversations.

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