After a confusing morning of tweets by President Donald Trump, the House on Thursday passed a bill to reauthorize a key foreign intelligence collection program with an important tweak: It would require the FBI to get a warrant if it wants to view the contents of Americans’ communications swept up in the process.
Legislation to renew the program that allows spy agencies to conduct surveillance on foreign targets abroad passed the House 256-164 and now heads to the Senate. Trump has said he will sign the bill, which would extend the program for six years.
The program is often described as critical in helping prevent and unravel terrorist activity, including cyber attacks.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats calls this foreign intelligence the “holy grail” that provides insight into the thinking and actions of U.S. adversaries. However, the program, which is to expire on Jan. 19, also sweeps up Americans’ communications.
Privacy advocates and some lawmakers from both parties want to require the FBI to get a warrant if it wants to query or view the content of Americans’ communications that are in the database to build domestic crime cases.
The bill passed by the House would allow the FBI to continuing querying the database, using search terms, for information on Americans, but would require investigators to get a probable cause warrant if they want to view the actual content of those communications.
Earlier, the House rejected a measure that would have imposed stiffer restrictions on the FBI. It would have required the FBI to get a warrant to continue even querying the database where Americans’ communications are involved.
Trump’s morning tweets caused confusion in advance of the House vote.
One of his tweet suggested that the foreign intelligence program was used to collect information that might have been used to taint his campaign. Afterward, Trump had a phone call with House Speaker Paul Ryan, according to a Republican familiar with the call but not allowed to publicly discuss private discussions.
A short time later, Trump changed his tone on Twitter. “This vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land,” he tweeted. “We need it! Get smart!”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said Trump’s tweets were “inaccurate, conflicting and confusing.” He suggested that a vote on the bill should be delayed, but it went forward.
The president appeared to contradict the position of his own administration. In one tweet, he linked the FISA program that his White House supports to a dossier that alleges his campaign had ties to Russia. That caught aides and lawmakers off guard. A short time later, he went further.
”‘House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,’” Trump wrote, citing a Fox News headline. “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?”
Last year, Trump accused the Obama administration of wiretapping Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign. He never cited any evidence, and top intelligence and FBI officials as well as Republicans in Congress swiftly rejected the accusations as false.
Trump’s position Thursday morning seemed to be in opposition to the Trump administration’s position, potentially putting the reauthorization vote in doubt. His tweets came shortly after a “Fox and Friends” segment that highlighted the FISA program. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has also made the television rounds in recent days, has pushed for less invasive spying measures.
The tweets sent White House aides scrambling to explain the apparent about-face. The president’s reversal was yet another example of him seemingly taking cues from television, particularly the morning Fox News show, while also personalizing an issue, in this case the dossier, over a policy position.
There are no obvious links between the dossier and the reauthorization of the spying program, but Trump has repeatedly denounced the document in recent days. The president has said that his campaign and Trump Tower was spied on by the Obama administration, calling the former president a “bad (or sick) guy!” He has offered no proof for such claims.
The FBI and intelligence agencies say being able to query the database is essential to keeping America safe and the Trump administration had wanted the program to be reauthorized without change.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has said that tips are flooding into the FBI by the thousands. It’s at this initial stage — where leads are sifted and prioritized — when foreign intelligence can be queried to help connect dots and spot possible national security threats, he said.
In a recent speech, Wray said: “I’m going to say this over and over and over again. Every court to look at 702 and the way it’s been used, including the FBI queries, have found it fully consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”