Attempts to rein in the government’s ability to spy on Americans fell flat after Rep. Adam B. Schiff intervened to protect the types of powers that the FBI used to go after the Trump campaign in 2016.
Mr. Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, ran roughshod over House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, whose panel had control over the battle to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, said advocates on both sides of the aisle.
The power struggle created an awkward moment in which Mr. Nadler canceled the markup of his own bill just minutes before it was scheduled.
FISA allows U.S. intelligence agencies to meet with judges behind closed doors and explain why spying is needed without anyone to question their evidence. The process has come under scrutiny since revelations last year confirmed that the FBI abused FISA to surveil Trump campaign figure Carter Page as part of its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Liberal civil libertarians and conservative defenders of President Trump united in an attempt to curb the government’s powers with FISA reforms. Instead, Mr. Schiff, at the urging of the intelligence community, pushed for smaller tweaks to the law.
As a result, the House passed a bill that few lawmakers liked, that advocacy groups on the left and the right condemned, and that Mr. Trump hinted he would veto. Three critical FISA provisions lapsed when the Senate failed to take action Friday on the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and Trump ally, urged swift passage of the House bill, but a Republican faction also pressing for a Trump veto blocked a quick vote.
Senate Republican leaders aim to pass the House bill this time and hope the president won’t veto it.
Sean Vitka, policy counsel for the left-leaning Demand Progress, slammed the House’s reform measures as “an insult to Americans.”
“This bill fails to address the innumerable famously well-documented problems with recent and ongoing FISA surveillance,” he said.
The Senate is poised to take up the House bill Monday, one day after three critical FISA provisions lapsed. The Senate’s fiercest civil liberties defenders are urging their colleagues to reject the legislation.
Those who followed the FISA fight say Mr. Schiff’s interference may have cost a chance at meaningful reform.
“Schiff was fairly careful to keep his hands clean publicly from meddling in that process, but what everyone behind the scenes was saying is that he in some ways had ownership of the final results of this process,” said Josh Withrow, senior policy analyst for FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group. “He made it clear that nothing would be allowed to pass that the [intelligence committee] hadn’t signed off on first.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, pointed a finger at Mr. Schiff after a markup hearing was canceled because leadership opposed amendments she planned to attach to the FISA bill.
She told Politico that whenever there was a chance to overhaul FISA, regardless of which party proposed the change, the intelligence committee chairman scuttled it.
Spokesmen for Mr. Schiff did not acknowledge requests for comment from The Washington Times.
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, rejected the idea that Mr. Schiff’s involvement in a bill outside of his committee had sunk the chance for FISA reform. He said staff from multiple committees, along with the Justice Department, had a hand in crafting the bill.
“There were all types of elements at play,” he told The Times. “You are negotiating with everyone. That’s why it took forever over the last several days.”
Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that Mr. Schiff’s refusal to concede the administration a talking point on the Page warrant was a factor in his go-small approach to reforms, they said the main issue was pressure from the intelligence community to keep the status quo.
The National Security Agency, the CIA, the FBI and other agencies said their powers were necessary to keep the U.S. safe.
Even Attorney General William P. Barr, a fierce critic of the Page warrant and an ally of Mr. Trump, surprisingly went against the president by lobbying Republicans for a clean renewal of the FISA provisions. He praised the House bill after it passed.
“The establishment intelligence community was generally on the same page the whole time,” said former Rep. Dan Glickman, Kansas Democrat and a former intelligence committee chairman. “It doesn’t surprise me that Schiff would be inclined to support the intelligence community’s agenda.”
Mr. Glickman said that after years of criticism by Mr. Trump and Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and the panel’s previous chairman, it is not surprising that the intelligence community and Mr. Schiff would look out for each other.
“They’ve been browbeaten by the president for a long time now with him saying he knows more than they do and disregarding their raw intelligence,” he said. “I think in many respects the Democrats treated them more fairly than the president. Schiff has a better relationship with the intelligence community, certainly more than Nunes.”
Mr. Vitka said the ability of the intelligence committee to control other members of Congress is “very unique and dangerous to the privacy of all people in the United States.”
Civil liberties hawks, who viewed Mr. Nadler as one of their staunchest allies in Congress, said they were surprised he was rolled by Mr. Schiff.
Mr. Nadler relentlessly opposed the Patriot Act and championed additional FISA reforms during a similar fight in 2015, but he sputtered to defend his committee’s bill last week.
“It greatly increases civil liberties protections. Not as much as I would want … but it’s what we could get,” he said tepidly when urging his colleagues to support the legislation.
“Chairman Nadler as an individual has consistently supported good civil liberties amendments, and he has already said he doesn’t think this bill goes far enough,” Mr. Vitka said. “The issue here was how much he was pressured to give up control to the intelligence committee, which has always been the primary obstacle in passing surveillance reform in the House.”
Mr. Schiff wouldn’t have been able to bring Mr. Nadler to heel without the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, according to Capitol Hill insiders.
The speaker last year repeatedly rebuffed Mr. Nadler’s push to begin the impeachment process. When she ultimately relented, she appointed Mr. Schiff to lead the proceedings.
“Schiff has the ear of the speaker,” said Mr. Withrow, the FreedomWorks analyst. “Nadler is a weak chairman. I’m not saying it to knock the guy, but If you watch his hearings, he doesn’t have command of the committee a chairman should have. Schiff played that to his advantage.”
The Senate on Monday will try to figure out what to do with the FISA bill.
It does have some support among Republican leadership, including Mr. McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, but it has detractors in both parties, too.
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, demanded a 45-day extension Thursday so senators could hammer out a better deal. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, denied the plea.
Mr. Vitka said he expects an intense battle in the Senate this week.
“There are maybe 20 to 25 Republican senators who are willing to go along with whatever Burr and McConnell tell them to do,” he said. “Thankfully, people like Sen. Lee make it clear there are members, on both sides of the aisle, who will fight hard against this fake reform bill.”
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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