WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to renew for six years a controversial surveillance program that may collect the content of Americans' email, text messages, photos and other electronic communication without a warrant.
The vote was 256-164 to extend the program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
An alternative bill by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., failed by a vote of 183-233. That bill, which had strong support from both liberal and conservative civil liberties groups, would have required federal agents to get warrants before searching through Americans' data that is collected when the U.S. government spies on foreigners abroad.
The Section 702 program was originally approved by Congress in 2008 to increase the government's ability to track and thwart foreign terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
It was designed to spy on foreign citizens living outside the U.S. and specifically bars the targeting of American citizens or anyone residing in the U.S. But critics say the program also sweeps up the electronic data of innocent Americans who may be communicating with foreign nationals, even when those foreigners aren't suspected of terrorist activity.
"Section 702 was written to go after terrorists, but it is being used to go after Americans," Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said Thursday morning on the House floor.
The program is set to expire on Jan. 19 unless Congress acts. The Senate still must vote. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has vowed to filibuster the legislation passed by the House, but the Senate is ultimately expected to approve the bill.
President Trump offered a series of confusing tweets about the bill Thursday morning, prompting Democrats to ask for a delay in the House vote. Republican leaders refused.
Trump first took the remarkable step of tweeting his apparent opposition to the surveillance law despite the fact that prior presidents, the intelligence community and even his own administration have fought to maintain the program. Trump suggested that the Obama administration used this law to spy on him and his campaign.
Trump later tweeted what seemed to be a clarification of his position in favor of renewing the law, saying that "today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!"
The White House, in a statement released Wednesday night by press secretary Sarah Sanders, said the Trump administration opposed the Amash-Lofgren bill and "urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives."
The White House supported the bill passed by the House on Thursday. That bill, by Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., would restrict the use of data collected under Section 702 in some criminal prosecutions of U.S. citizens.
The bill also would temporarily stop federal agents from collecting communications that mention a surveillance target — but aren't to or from that target — until the Intelligence Community presents Congress with new procedures for gathering information.
Nunes said his bill strengthens privacy protections "without hindering the ability of our intelligence professionals to monitor terror suspects, analyze collected data, and keep us safe."
The legislation was supported by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
"This strikes the balance that we must have between honoring and protecting civil liberties and making sure we have the tools in this age of 21st century terrorism to protect our people," Ryan said.
But a coalition of 44 diverse groups from the liberal ACLU to the conservative FreedomWorks opposed Nunes' bill and supported the Amash-Lofgren legislation. They argued that restrictions on the use of Americans' data in the Nunes bill are so narrow and allow so many exceptions that they're virtually meaningless.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus also opposed the Nunes bill, which is supported by most House and Senate GOP leaders.
"A vote for this (Nunes) bill is a vote against the Fourth Amendment," said Jason Pye, FreedomWorks' vice president of legislative affairs.
Intelligence officials have so far refused to tell Congress how many unknowing Americans have had their personal communications collected under the program.
Civil liberties groups fear that the government can use that data to go after Americans for crimes such as tax evasion or minor drug offenses that have nothing to do with terrorism.
"We think that is unconstitutional, hugely problematic, and we're here to defend the rights of the American people," Amash said.
Intelligence officials have appealed to lawmakers to renew the existing 702 program, which they say has been crucial in stopping terrorist plots against the U.S.
In one case, the CIA used intelligence gathered under Section 702 to uncover a photograph and other details that enabled allies in an African nation to arrest two Islamic State militants connected to planning "a specific and immediate threat against U.S. personnel and interests," according to joint testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June by National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe.
The law also has been credited by intelligence officials with foiling terrorist plots to bomb the New York City subway system and the New York Stock Exchange.
Critics of the law say that U.S. intelligence agencies can still go after foreign terrorists while protecting Americans' basic rights.
"Politicians who support broad, unchecked government surveillance authorities are once again rushing to approve a sweeping program at the expense of Americans’ personal liberty and constitutional rights," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday in an op-ed.
GOP leaders decided to bring the Nunes bill to the floor rather than legislation passed by the House Judiciary Committee that supporters say had stronger privacy provisions.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the Nunes bill is so "deeply flawed" that it jeopardizes the renewal of the anti-terrorism law altogether.
"The new warrant requirement in this bill, such as it is, is a fig leaf for reform and fails to address the vast majority of searches of 702 information — and we know this because the FBI admitted as much to us," Nadler said. The FBI has acknowledged to lawmakers that it would rarely need court permission under the Nunes bill to search data collected on Americans.