President Donald Trump positioned himself well to the left of the Democratic Party on Wednesday by threatening to veto a clean renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) being pushed by House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Centrist Democrats and pro-law enforcement Republicans attempted to ram through several controversial spying provisions against the wishes of both the left-wing Progressive Caucus and the right-wing Freedom Caucus during a floor debate on reauthorization of the USA Freedom Act of 2015.
“If the FISA Bill is passed tonight on the House floor, I will quickly VETO it,” the president tweeted just after debate on the measures began. “Our Country has just suffered through the greatest political crime in its history. The massive abuse of FISA was a big part of it!”
“We cannot in good conscience vote for legislation that violates Americans’ fundamental right to privacy,” Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) wrote in an open letter whipping opposition to the bill.
Demand Progress Policy Director Daniel Schuman noted that Trump’s threat effectively scuppered Pelosi’s efforts to renew FISA spying surveillance without adding any reform provisions.
“And thus ends Pelosi’s attempt to today push a FISA bill without surveillance protections,” he tweeted. “As was brought up in the rules committee, the bill will change if Trump issues a veto threat.”
Trump’s bill-killing threat was of a piece with prior FISA criticism expressed by the presidential Twitter account earlier on Wednesday.
In an all-caps declaration of opposition to the renewal bill, Trump tweeted that “WARRANTLESS SURVEILLANCE OF AMERICANS IS WRONG!”
Studious critics pointed out that Trump himself signed into law the long-contentious spying authority he recently began railing against.
“He literally signed warrantless surveillance of Americans into law on January 19, 2018, with the reauthorization of FISA 702,” observed former Republican Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.).
As Reuters noted at the time:
The law renews for six years and with minimal changes the National Security Agency (NSA) program, which gathers information from foreigners overseas but incidentally collects an unknown amount of communications belonging to Americans.
The anti-Trump attorney husband of a certain White House official used the opportunity to make yet another personal attack against the president.
“I’m sure you don’t remember this, didn’t really understand it when you did it, don’t understand it now, and lack the intellectual capacity ever to understand it, but you signed into law Public Law No. 115-118, the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017,” post-2016 Election Trump critic George Conway noted via Twitter.
A presidential signing statement from 2018 reflects Trump’s prior view of FISA spying authority:
This intelligence is vital to keeping the Nation safe. As shown by the recent attacks in New York City and elsewhere around the globe, we face a constant threat from foreign terrorist networks and other foreign actors who would do us harm. In order to detect and prevent attacks before they happen, we must be able to intercept the communications of foreign targets who are reasonably believed to possess foreign intelligence information. Section 702 provides the necessary authority, and it has proven to be among the Nation’s most effective foreign intelligence tools. It has enabled our Intelligence Community to disrupt numerous plots against our citizens at home and our warfighters abroad, and it has unquestionably saved American lives. The Act I have signed today preserves and extends this critically important national security tool.
“Section 702 provides robust privacy protections for American citizens, and most importantly prohibits the Government from using it to target Americans and persons located in the United States,” Trump’s statement went on to say. “Only foreigners located abroad may be targeted for surveillance under section 702.”
“Just signed 702 Bill to reauthorize foreign intelligence collection,” the 45th president tweeted before falsely claiming the provision was not the long-criticized source of concern surrounding American law enforcement and intelligence agencies. “This is NOT the same FISA law that was so wrongly abused during the election. I will always do the right thing for our country and put the safety of the American people first!”
Trump was savaged for his doublespeak regarding FISA at the time.
“There is one signal that will tell you if the Republican’s #ReleaseTheMemo campaign is legitimate: whether or not [Trump] signs the FISA 702 [reauthorization] into law in the next 10 days,” American dissident Edward Snowden noted back then. “If he doesn’t veto 702 and send it back to Congress for reform, this is nothing but politics.”
Snowden was referring to an effort by the president’s allies in Congress to release a series of memos allegedly documenting serial FISA abuse by the nation’s top law enforcement agencies–including the long-venerated Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Such abuse was later confirmed by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz in a bombshell report that, while cursory, documented a pattern of lying, concealing evidence and manipulation of documents to extend wiretaps as well as untold warrant application errors inconsistent with internal FBI policy.
While the Horowitz report was hailed by some as a political victory for the Trump administration, then frustrated by the Russia probe, the report’s conclusions were also something of a rare vindication for the typically reviled left-right coalition of civil libertarians who have long opposed the post-9/11 grant of power to the nation’s law enforcement and national security apparatus.
On Wednesday, and likely spurred on by recent developments and FBI-credibility-damaging revelations in the case of retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, Trump appeared to come full circle on FISA spying and law enforcement abuse.
But while some pundits satiated their desire to comment on the issue by poking fun at Trump’s timely conversion, others didn’t particularly care if Trump had truly found constitutional religion.
“The fringe nat-sec hawk posture of [Speaker Pelosi] and [Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)] might have just undermined both reform and reauthorization of the Patriot Act,” noted Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal.
“Pelosi and Schiff have stood for the worst impulses of the national security apparatus every step of the way during this months-long reauthorization fight, all the while seeking to undermine popular bipartisan reform efforts in the House and Senate,” he elaborated in a message to Law&Crime.
[image via MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images]
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