- President Donald Trump walked back his attack on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act made shortly after a White House statement signalling support for it.
- “This is the act that may have been used … to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” Trump tweeted Thursday.
- FISA came under scrutiny as the US intelligence community began looking into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
- Trump and his allies have falsely accused former President Barack Obama and the intelligence community of illegally wiretapping campaign associates.
President Donald Trump on Thursday criticised the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act hours after the White House press secretary released a statement saying the administration supported the law and opposed an amendment that would impose limits on the government’s surveillance authority.
“‘House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,'” Trump tweeted, referring to a chyron earlier Thursday on “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning show he often watches and praises for its coverage of him.
“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?” he continued.
On the show, Judge Andrew Napolitano, a frequent Fox News contributor, said: “Mr. President, this is not the way to go. Spying is valid to find the foreign agents among us. But it’s got to be based on suspicion and not an area code.”
Trump’s tweet appeared to contradict the statement that the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, released on Wednesday night signalling the administration’s strong support for FISA – and specifically its Section 702, which allows the US government to track and collect the communications of foreigners overseas without a warrant.
The statement urged the House of Representatives to vote against the amendment to “preserve the useful role of FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the apparent contradiction.
The House just before noon on Thursday passed a bill to extend the warrantless-surveillance program, but it rejected the amendment.
Trump attempted to clarify his position a little more than an hour after his initial tweet.
“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land,”he tweeted. “We need it! Get smart!”
The end of a major battle – and the beginning of a new one
Following Trump’s tweets, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, recommended the FISA bill be temporarily withdrawn.
“In light of the significant concerns that have been raised by members of our caucus, and in light of the irresponsible and inherently contradictory messages coming out of the White House today, I would recommend that we withdraw consideration of the bill today, to give us more time to address the privacy questions that have been raised, as well as to get a clear statement from the administration about their position on the bill,” Schiff said on the House floor.
“I do this reluctantly – Section 702, I think, is among the most important of all of our surveillance programs,” Schiff continued. “Nonetheless, I think the issues that have been raised will need more time to be resolved.”
Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed Schiff’s calls for withdrawing the bill.
Schiff also said Trump’s comments about Obama-era surveillance were “blatantly untrue.”
“But they nonetheless cast an additional cloud over the debate today,” he said. “A better course would be for us to defer consideration.”
Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s initial tweet about FISA was “irresponsible, untrue, and frankly it endangers our national security.”
“FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning,” Warner tweeted.
James Comey, the former FBI director, weighed in on the FISA debate as well.
“Thoughtful leaders on both sides of the aisle know FISA section 702 is a vital and carefully overseen tool to protect this country,” he tweeted Thursday. “This isn’t about politics. Congress must reauthorize it.”
The House has been gearing up for a FISA fight since late December, when it was due to be reauthorized. Congress extended it to January 19, but the new bill has pitted House committees against each other – people working on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees have told Business Insider they have been “stuck in FISA hell” for weeks.
Nunes enters the fray
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, inserted a last-minute “unmasking” provision that would change the intelligence community’s process for identifying US citizens caught up in foreign surveillance.
The provision, which was ultimately scrapped, threatened to derail the committee’s FISA bill, two sources told Business Insider. The Daily Beast first reported on Nunes’ efforts.
Nunes was forced to step aside from the committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election after he told reporters he had seen classified documents that raised questions about whether the Obama administration had improperly unmasked members of the Trump campaign. He was recently cleared by the House Ethics Committee, but he has continued to investigate potential improprieties by the Justice Department and FBI.
Section 702 of FISA came under scrutiny as the intelligence community began looking into Russia’s election interference and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to sway the race in his favour.
Over the past year, Trump and his backers have characterised reports that detailed communications between Trump campaign associates and Russians before the election as evidence of illegal wiretapping. Trump also accused former President Barack Obama of ordering the unlawful wiretapping of Trump Tower during the campaign.
Neither the White House nor the US intelligence community can legally surveil US persons without cause. But under Section 702, the identities of Americans whom foreigners are speaking with or about may be included – but “masked” – in intelligence reports summarizing the communications.
Such was the case with Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser whose communications with Sergey Kislyak, who until last summer was Russia’s ambassador to the US, were incidentally collected as part of routine intelligence-gathering while the US monitored Kislyak.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December to one count of making false statements to investigators about his contacts with Russians.
CNN also reported last September that the FBI obtained a FISA warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2016 to surveil Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. He was previously monitored under a separate FISA authorization that began in 2014, the report said, as part of an investigation into US lobbying firms’ undisclosed work for the Ukrainian government.
To obtain a warrant to surveil Manafort, investigators would have had to demonstrate to the court that there was probable cause to believe he was acting as an unlawful foreign agent.
Manafort and his associate Rick Gates were indicted last October on 12 counts, including failing to register as a foreign agent, as part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference. They have pleaded not guilty to all 12 charges.
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