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White House Opposes Bipartisan FISA-Limiting Bill

The White House has come out against a proposed amendment to reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reauthorization that its backers say provides the necessary constitutional protections while giving intelligence authorities the ability to target terrorists and other overseas targets. The amendment is scheduled to be debated on the House floor Thursday (Jan. 11)

FISA allows for the accessing of communications with foreign entities, but legislators from both parties have been looking to rein in warrantless searches of the communications of U.S. residents (when they are on the other end of those communications). It is just the latest attempt to address that issue.

The USA Rights Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), is expected to be introduced as an amendment to the FISA bill.

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"The USA Rights Act reforms Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to end warrantless backdoor searches of Americans' calls, emails, texts and other communications that are routinely swept up under a program designed to spy on foreign targets," Poe said. "This sweeping authority has been clouded in secrecy, in part because the government refuses to answer essential questions about how it impacts Americans, including who can be targeted and how many American communications the government collects. Despite arguments to the contrary, the USA Rights Act allows the 702 program to continue to be used to target terrorists and agents of a foreign power without a warrant, it simply adds a clear warrant requirement when we search this data on U.S. Persons."

The White House sees it very differently, terrorism and national security, as it has in defending what its critics see as heavy-handed immigration policies.

"The Administration strongly opposes the 'USA Rights' amendment to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, which the House will consider tomorrow," the White House said in a statement late Wednesday. "This amendment would re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11 in order to increase information sharing and improve our national security. The Administration urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives."

In November, House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the USA Liberty Act, which partially closes the "backdoor" loophole through which Americans' communications--if they are on the other end of that conversation with non-U.S. resident--can be viewed without a warrant. Reps. Poe and Zoe Lofgren want to shut that door completely.

Congress has been trying for years to agree on the right balance of privacy protection and going after foreign threats to national security.

“We call on Congress to protect Americans’ 4th Amendment rights," said Computer & Communications Industry Association President Ed Black. "We oppose any renewal of FISA that fails to close the ‘backdoor search loophole,’ which permits the continued searching of Americans’ incidentally collected communications without a warrant based on probable cause. We urge members to support the USA RIGHTS Act Amendment or any amendment that would protect Americans’ communications from unreasonable, warrantless access.”   

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.