- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A coalition of liberals and conservatives is increasingly optimistic they’ll be able to curtail the government’s chief foreign intelligence snooping law in a major showdown on the House floor Thursday.

GOP leaders and the intelligence community are fighting to preserve the government’s flexibility to act under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs collection of communications from foreign targets.

But civil liberties advocates on the right and left say they fear Americans are getting snared in the collection and they have demanded new protections before they agree to renew the law, which will expire Jan. 19 unless Congress acts.

They’re pushing an alternative that would require the government to have a warrant before it snoops through the data to investigate Americans for ordinary crimes.

“We have a real opportunity to get this passed in the House tomorrow,” said Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who’s leading the coalition of liberals and conservatives. “I’ve never had a situation where it was so easy to get cosponsors.”

Section 702 allows the government to target foreigners overseas, collecting and storing their communications. But while the targets must be foreign, conversations they have with Americans can be snared.

The bill pushed by GOP leaders and the intelligence community would allow the government to re-start so-called “abouts” collection, where agencies can track communications that mention the target but aren’t to or from him. The intelligence community would have to present a plan to Congress, before it could renew abouts collection.

The leaders’ bill would require the government to get a warrant to access information about Americans, but only after a criminal investigation unrelated to national security is established.

Civil liberties advocates said that’s too late in the process, and said they feared investigators would avoid officially opening an investigation in order to avoid having to get a warrant.

“Without the Amash amendment, this bill falls short,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat. “This is a broad left-right coalition that has come together even though there are many things we disagree on.”

Democrats are expected to be largely supportive of the Amash proposal, but its fate will rest on how many Republicans buck their party leaders and back Mr. Amash.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, said Mr. Amash, despite being an “important voice” from the libertarian side of the debate, got his amendment wrong.

“It is not the voice we need to be listening to when it comes to national security,” Mr. Gowdy told Fox News, suggesting major national security problems loomed without the program.

“You go find me a single freedom you have that is enhanced when you’re dead.”

Mr. Gowdy said in this case, since the information was legally collected, he saw no problem with law enforcement officials being able to sift through it after the fact even if that snares Americans.

Rep. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in office on Sept. 11, 2001, warned of a return to the intelligence failures that led to that attack. She said she wished the GOP leaders’ bill had been even stronger in empowering the intelligence community.

“The bill goes too far in terms of beginning the process that we cannot begin in putting walls up. All of us lived through 9-11,” she said.

While lawmakers are rushing a Jan. 19 deadline to get something done, Ms. Lofgren said they may have more time. While the law expires next week, a court order approving data collection under Section 702 lasts into April.

“Even if the underlying bill lapses, we have an order that extends into late April, so we have a deadline, but it’s not this week and it’s not next week,” said Ms. Lofgren. “We owe it to our obligation to the Constitution to get this right.”

In 2015, the House approved an amendment to the defense spending bill to place a warrant requirement on 702, but the language didn’t survive a conference committee with the Senate. Another attempt to impose a warrant requirement in failed a year later.

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