Speaker Mike Johnson Resurrects FISA Renewal, Tees Up Friday Vote

On Thursday, House Speaker Mike Johnson appeared to turn the tide for an imperiled bill to renew the government’s chief spying powers with small tweaks added to placate Republican holdouts…

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Mr. Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, pitched an updated version of the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702, which allows the government to intercept texts, phone calls and emails of foreigners abroad but sometimes also scoops up Americans’ private data.

To get the bill back on track after 19 Republicans derailed it in a procedural vote on Wednesday, Mr. Johsnon trimmed the reauthorization period from five to two years. He also allowed for an amendment vote to add a warrant requirement to FBI searches for Americans’ data in the FISA database.

Section 702 will expire on April 19 if Congress does not act.

Lawmakers were still poring over the updated bill Thursday evening. A vote was scheduled to advance the legislation Friday morning, with a final vote expected later in the day.

The Republicans who blocked the speaker’s first attempt to advance the bill to a floor vote signaled that the shorter reauthorization period was a strong incentive for their support, particularly with the potential for former President Donald Trump poised to retake the White House in November.

“We’re still reading through the text to confirm that it’s what we anticipated,” Rep. Bob Good, Virginia Republican, said. “But I think going from five years to two is a good thing. That gives us a chance to amend it more quickly, if necessary, not to have to live with five years.”

However, the two-year sunset on the law alarmed national security hawks who fear it inches toward the warrant requirement, which they say could delay crucial intelligence about terrorist plots and other threats.

“This is a critical national security tool and we can’t be playing games with it,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, Pennsylvania Republican, said.

The program has been controversial since its start in 2007. Congress required it to be renewed every five years or so to force a recurring debate on how it is working.

This time around, that debate has been shaped by the FBI’s use of FISA to target the Trump campaign in 2016, though much of that spying did not rely on Section 702 and instead lied on warrant applications to the secret FISA court.

Former President Donald Trump rallied Republicans against the reauthorization bill on Wednesday, calling on them to “KILL IT.”

A 2019 report by the Justice Department inspector general found at least 17 bungles by the FBI in its application under FISA to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign, over purported ties to Russia.

Among those bungles was an FBI lawyer altering an email to conceal the fact that Mr. Page had served as a source for the CIA. That information could have cut against the government’s case that he deserved to be probed.

The court that oversees FISA, in two opinions unsealed last year, also said Section 702 had been used to vet some would-be immigrants and probe Black Lives Matter activists, political donors and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

In testimony to a House panel on Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray insisted the bureau had cleaned up its FISA activity and was following the law in every way. “My understanding is that we’re in compliance with the law,” Mr. Wray said.

He said that allowing Section 702 to lapse would leave the U.S. vulnerable at a time when foreign threats abound.

“If we’re blinded from seeing what our adversaries are, who they’re working with, I can tell you that’s going to most definitely have consequences for our ability to protect the American people,” Mr. Wray said. “I can assure that none of our adversaries are tying their own hands. So now is not the time for us to hang up our gloves.”

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