House passes NSA spying bill after Trump tweets cause confusion

(Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill to renew the National Security Agency's warrantless internet surveillance program, overcoming objections from privacy advocates and confusion prompted by morning tweets from President Donald Trump that initially questioned the spying tool.

The legislation, which passed 256-164 and split party lines, is the culmination of a yearslong debate in Congress on the proper scope of U.S. intelligence collection - one fueled by the 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance secrets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.


SEE ALSO: Trump bucked his own White House on a controversial surveillance law after watching FOX News

Senior Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives had urged cancellation of the vote after Trump appeared to cast doubt on the merits of the program, but Republicans forged ahead.

Trump initially said on Twitter that the surveillance program, first created in secret after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later legally authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, had been used against him but later said it was needed.

Some conservative, libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats attempted to persuade colleagues to include more privacy protections. They failed on Thursday to pass an amendment to include a warrant requirement before the NSA or other intelligence agencies could scrutinize communications belonging to Americans whose data is incidentally collected.

Thursday's vote was a major blow to privacy and civil liberties advocates, who just two years ago celebrated passage of a law effectively ending the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. call records, another top-secret program exposed by Snowden.

The bill as passed by the House would extend the NSA's spying program for six years with minimal changes. Some privacy groups said it would actually expand the NSA's surveillance powers.

Most lawmakers expect it to become law, although it still would require Senate approval and Trump's signature. Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden immediately vowed to filibuster the measure but it was unclear whether they could convince enough colleagues to force changes.

The White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican leaders in Congress have said they consider the surveillance program indispensable and in need of little or no revision.

Before the vote, a tweet from Trump had contradicted the official White House position and renewed unsubstantiated allegations that the previous administration of Barack Obama improperly surveilled his campaign during the 2016 election.

"This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?" the president said in a tweet.

"WE NEED IT!"

The White House did not immediately respond to a request to clarify Trump’s tweet but he posted a follow-up less than two hours later, after speaking on the phone with House Republican leader Paul Ryan.

"With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!" Trump tweeted.

Unmasking refers to the largely separate issue of how Americans' names kept secret in intelligence reports can be revealed.

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Campaign promises that Trump kept in 2017
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Campaign promises that Trump kept in 2017

Nominate replacement for late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

After congressional Republicans refused to hold a hearing for Obama nominee Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia, who passed away in February 2016, Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the empty Supreme Court seat soon after taking office in January. At the time, he said, “I made a promise to the American people, if I were elected president I would find the very best judge in the country for the Supreme Court.”

Photo by REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Move U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem

Trump announced in December that he planned to recognize Israel’s claim to a city at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict by moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

That would fulfill a 2016 campaign pledge, although he has offered no timeline for the embassy relocation and recently signed a waiver officially delaying any move for six months.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Suspend immigration from terror-prone regions

One of the first major uproars from the left during Trump’s presidency came after he signed an executive order suspending immigration from several Muslim-majority countries during his first week in office.

After a series of drawn-out court battles, the Supreme Court allowed the third version of the travel ban to go into full effect on December 4. The action meant people cannot enter the U.S. from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad – fulfilling a promise from a campaign speech that singled out Libya and Syria as two places from which he would suspend immigration.

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Enact lifetime ban on White House officials from lobbying for foreign governments and five-year ban on lobbying their own agency after leaving the administration

The former businessman came into the Oval Office eager to craft an image of someone yearning to prevent politicians from being bound to business interests. So in his quest to “drain the swamp,” Trump enacted an executive order in January meant to limit the sort of lucrative, ethically questionable jobs that former presidential aides have occasionally attained soon after leaving the White House.

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Withdraw from Trans-Pacific Partnership

Trump formally withdrew from the TPP directly after inauguration weekend on the first Monday of his term. It was no surprise he was in such a hurry to pull the United States out of the pact after railing on the Obama-negotiated agreement throughout his campaign, alleging the trade deal took jobs away from Americans.

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Make a rule that for every federal regulation enacted, two must be removed

President Trump issued an executive order on January 30 that sought to dramatically reduce federal regulations across the board. The order requires all agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new one introduced, a campaign promise that hailed to his capitalist businessman roots.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Clear the way for energy infrastructure deals, including Keystone Pipeline XL

Within a week of taking office, the president signed two executive orders to move forward with the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, rolling back the Obama administration’s environmental policies in order to increase domestic energy production and bolster the industry’s infrastructure. Obama had famously rejected the $6.1 billion Keystone XL project in 2015.

(Photo by Aydin Palabiyikoglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Keep Guantanamo Bay prison open

In a sort of parallel opposition to president Barack Obama, who repeatedly claimed that he’d close Guantanamo Bay but ultimately never followed though, President Trump promised to keep the maximum-security prison in Cuba open and “load it up with bad dudes.” As of January 2017, 41 detainees remained there, and Trump has made no indication he’ll shut down Gitmo.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Randall Mikkelsen

Implement hiring freeze on federal employees

Trump initiated a 90-day federal hiring freeze almost immediately after entering the Oval Office, putting a halt to the rush of hires by the Obama administration before Inauguration Day in an attempt to fill the ranks with Democrats. Trump framed it as a measure that would “clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C.”

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Severely cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget

As a skeptic of human-induced climate change, Trump targeted the EPA as an agency that could drastically reduce costs. Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to lead the agency the former Oklahoma attorney general had criticized for years over its alleged strict regulations.

Though Congress seems unlikely to pass the 31 percent budget reduction proposed by Trump and Pruitt, the president certainly can’t be accused of not trying to significantly downsize it.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Pull out of Paris climate accord

Trump declared in June that he would withdraw the U.S. from the historic Paris agreement that was supported by Barack Obama in an effort to halt climate change. He decried “draconian” financial and economic burdens it puts on American workers. However, he added that he was open to re-entering the accord “on terms that are fair to the United States.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/How Hwee Young/Pool

Lower the business tax rate from 35 percent

Though Trump couldn’t manage to convince Congress to lower the corporate tax rate to 15 percent as he’d proposed, the 21 percent rate presented in the tax bill passed by Congress right before the holidays still represents a significant decrease from the previous 35 percent rate.

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Eliminate the individual health care mandate established by Obamacare

Less than an hour after the Senate passed the massive GOP tax reform bill in the wee hours of December 20, Trump celebrated the demise of the individual mandate, which was attached to the legislation, on Twitter. The president had been ripping Obamacare for years, in particular, the requirement that punished Americans if they decided to go without health insurance.

However, the mandate won’t be abolished until 2019 since the legislation was passed too late in time for 2018.

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After the vote Thursday, Ryan, asked about his conversation with the president, said Trump's concerns regarded other parts of the law.

"It's well known that he has concerns about the domestic FISA law. That's not what we're doing today. Today was 702, which is a different part of that law ... He knows that and he, I think, put out something that clarifies that," Ryan told reporters.

Asked by Reuters at a conference in New York about Trump's tweets, Rob Joyce, the top White House cyber official, said there was no confusion within Oval Office about the value of the surveillance program and that there have been no cases of it being used improperly for political purposes.

Without congressional action, legal support for Section 702 will expire next week, although intelligence officials say it could continue through April.

Section 702 allows the NSA to eavesdrop on vast amounts of digital communications from foreigners living outside the United States through U.S. companies such as Facebook Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google.

The spying program also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas, and can search those messages without a warrant.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan and Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)

 

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