WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives voted Thursday to extend the National Security Agency's no-warrant surveillance program for six years with minimal changes, rejecting a yearslong effort by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to impose new privacy limits when it sweeps up Americans' emails and other personal communications.
The 256-164 vote centered on an expiring law that permits the government, without warrants, to collect communications of foreigners abroad from U.S. firms such as Google and AT&T -- even when those targets are talking to Americans. Congress had enacted the law in 2008 to legalize a form of a once-secret no-warrant surveillance program created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The legislation approved Thursday still has to go through the Senate. But fewer lawmakers there appear to favor major changes to spying laws, so the House vote was viewed as likely the end of a debate over 21st-century surveillance technology and privacy rights that began in 2013 after the leaks by intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Congress did, in 2015, vote to end and replace another program that Snowden exposed, under which the NSA had been secretly collecting logs of Americans' domestic phone calls in bulk. But lawmakers who hoped to add significant new privacy constraints to the no-warrant surveillance program fell short Thursday.
The vote was a victory for President Donald Trump's administration and the intelligence community, which opposed imposing major new curbs on the program, and for Republican leadership, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who had blocked the House from an opportunity to consider a less-sweeping compromise package developed by the House Judiciary Committee. They gambled that faced with an all-or-essentially-nothing choice, a majority of lawmakers would choose the status quo -- and won.
Before approving the extension of the law, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) Amendments Act, the House voted 233-183 to reject an amendment that proposed a series of overhauls. Among them was a requirement that officials get warrants in most cases before hunting for and reading emails and other messages of Americans swept up under the program.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats applauded the House action, saying it was a critical step in protecting Americans and U.S. allies, and "I have faith that my former colleagues in the Senate will follow the House's lead."
"Our security is not a partisan issue," said Coats, a former Indiana senator.
Earlier Thursday, Trump contradicted his own White House and top national security officials in a Twitter post that criticized the surveillance law just as Congress began debating whether to approve it. But less than two hours later, the president appeared to reverse himself.
"This vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land," he tweeted. "We need it! Get smart!"
Trump's first tweet on the topic appeared to encourage lawmakers to support limiting the law.
"'House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.' 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?" he wrote.
He was referring to a contentious but largely uncorroborated dossier that details claims about ties between Russia and Trump and his aides.
White House aides scrambled Thursday to explain Trump's apparent about-face, saying the president was happy to see the House approve the bill.
"We weren't confused, but some of you were," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Still, Trump's earlier tweet angered Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who had been trying to chart a course to renew it, more or less intact. Ryan and Trump spoke by phone between the president's two tweets, according to a senior Republican congressional aide. Asked about the president's conflicting tweets, Ryan said Trump has always been in support of foreign surveillance.
"His administration's position has been really clear from day one, which is: 702 is really important, it's got to be renewed," Ryan told reporters after the vote.
Democrats pounced on Trump's earlier criticism.
"This is irresponsible, untrue, and frankly it endangers our national security," Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Senate intelligence committee's top Democrat, tweeted. "FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic leader, asked Ryan to pull the bill from consideration, according to a senior Democratic aide familiar with the request. But Republicans, battling a last-minute push from conservative lawmakers, gambled on moving forward with a vote.
After it was approved, the American Civil Liberties Union said the legislation will give more spying power to the Trump administration.
"No president should have this power," Neema Singh Guliani, a policy counsel with the ACLU, said in a statement. "Yet, members of Congress just voted to hand it to an administration that has labeled individuals as threats based merely on their religion, nationality or viewpoints."
Republican leaders in the House and the Senate had counted on enough moderate Democrats and Republicans to stick together to extend the legal basis for the surveillance program, with only minimal changes. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, was spotted in a House cloakroom talking to members before the vote in a last-minute lobbying push.
While the debate over the surveillance program ensued, Coats issued new guidance for how officials can find out the names of Americans whose identities are blacked out in classified intelligence reports. Only top intelligence officials or their designees can approve such requests, which must be justified and documented.
Coats' policy is designed to prevent names from being disclosed for political reasons, especially during presidential transitions. But Republicans and Democrats dispute whether there is any need for the change.
Republicans, including Trump, have alleged that officials in President Barack Obama's administration improperly shared the identities of Trump presidential transition team members mentioned in intelligence reports. Democrats say there is no evidence that happened.
Information for this article was contributed by Charlie Savage, Eileen Sullivan and Nicholas Fandos of The New York Times; and by Deb Riechmann and Jonathan Lemire of The Associated Press.
“We weren’t confused, but some of you were,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters Thursday when asked about President Donald Trump’s seemingly contradictory tweets about legislation affecting the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.
Marc Short (left), White House legislative liaison, escorts White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to the House chamber Thursday before the vote on extending the National Security Agency’s no-warrant surveillance program.
A Section on 01/12/2018
Print Headline: House votes to extend no-warrant surveillance