House Republicans scrap votes on controversial Section 702 renewal bills

A plan to vote on two competing House bills that would reauthorize a powerful surveillance authority was hurriedly scrapped Monday evening after Republicans started arguing over proposals that take different paths on privacy protections.

The House discussed the bills to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act at a Rules Committee meeting on Monday, December 11th. Republicans had been aiming for floor votes as early as Tuesday.

But the panel adjourned Monday without acting on the two bills on Section 702, which is set to expire at the end of the year. Chairman Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, after a committee recess, announced that they “no longer anticipate further consideration” of the proposals.

According to The New York Times, Republicans traded accusations and even expletives as they argued over the two measures to overhaul the law, known as Section 702.

The program allows the government to conduct warrantless surveillance of foreigners abroad. But it also sometimes collects Americans’ private messages.

Section 702 is set to expire at the end of the year and needs to be reauthorized. Two camps have been quarreling over whether the program should be limited or expanded.

On one side, hard-right Republican allies of former President Donald Trump have joined forces with progressive Democrats to support a Judiciary Committee bill that would sharply curtail Section 702 and enhance protections for Americans’ privacy rights.

On the other side, centrists and national security hawks have backed an Intelligence Committee bill, bitterly criticized by privacy groups. The Brennan Center for Justice called the document a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” saying it wouldn’t rein in warrantless surveillance – on the contrary, it would expand the government's spying powers.

Supporters of the Intelligence Committee bill, however, say that warrants, even if necessary most of the time, would strip Section 702’s effectiveness and endanger the United States. Proponents of continuing the program without limitations include President Joe Biden’s administration officials.

The Brennan Center for Justice, The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Demand Progress, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice are among organizations opposing short-term reauthorization of Section 702.

The bills would still have moved to the Senate after passing, and opposition there has been significant. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat representing Oregon, has been very critical of the more hawkish document.

“Right now, the government has to go through a phone or email provider to spy using 702. The House Intel bill would change that by forcing anyone providing public WiFi (hotels, coffee shops, bookstores) to unknowingly help the government do this without a warrant,” Wyden said on X.

In truth, now that the House Republicans have scrapped the vote on both bills, they must see the off-ramp. That’s because even though Section 702 is set to lapse at the end of December, the program can lawfully keep operating until April 2024.

The annual defense authorization bill that contains a short-term extension of the program without reforms until mid-April will be voted on later this week.

But the extension would create a window for a surveillance court to issue new annual orders that would allow the program to operate through April 2025, and some lawmakers aren’t happy with this.

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