Washington • Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, on Thursday strongly defended a controversial government surveillance program as a much-needed national security tool that has been wrongly maligned.
The House voted 256 to 164 to extend the program for another six years with Stewart and Reps. Mia Love and John Curtis supporting the measure; Rep. Rob Bishop voted against it.
The bill, now headed to the Senate where it faces opposition from some Republicans, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, allows the government to spy on communications by foreign nationals on U.S. soil by collecting emails and other messages from American companies.
Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who managed the bill on the House floor at the request of Chairman Devin Nunes, said that America faces an “array of threats” that are more complicated than in the past.
“In order to keep U.S. interests and troops abroad safe from harm, we must ensure that our intelligence community has the tools it needs to provide imperative intelligence to our soldiers,” Stewart said, adding that those opposed to the bill have been arguing falsely that it would allow spying on U.S. citizens.
“I’m deeply disturbed by the deception and misinformation that has been put forward by those opposing this bill,” Stewart said. “It is not bulk collection of information. It is not a program that targets Americans. It is about foreign terrorists on foreign soil and keeping the homeland safe.”
The program is set to end on Jan. 19 unless Congress acts.
But the bill faces a tough slog in the Senate where Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority.
Lee has lobbied for an overhaul of the program, known as Section 702, to help protect American’s privacy that he says is at jeopardy with the current law.
“Unfortunately, the House bill falls short in providing critical protections for Americans whose communications are routinely swept up by this powerful foreign intelligence tool,” Lee said in a joint statement with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The two are sponsoring the USA Liberty Act that they say will preserve the government program but also protect Americans against unlawful government snooping.
“Our bill makes clear that Americans need and deserve both security and protection of their privacy,” Lee and Leahy said in the statement. The two called for an open debate on the bill to allow senators to offer amendments to the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FISA).
The House voted down such an attempt to amend the bill by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.
Bishop said that he opposed the bill because while it was better than current law, it didn’t go far enough.
The bill improves the status quo, but missed an opportunity to both clarify vague definitions and limit the ability of any attorney general to circumvent protections,” Bishop said in a statement.
Love said she was sensitive to privacy concerns, but believes the bill passed by the House adequately addresses them.
“I certainly understand those concerns, and support the reforms to protect privacy that were included in the bill,” she said. “Ultimately, this bill strikes a balance between privacy and safety.”
Curtis said he backed the bill because the program is a “critical tool” that only collects information about foreign nationals outside of the United States, “which has successfully uncovered and thwarted terror plots against the U.S. homeland and our military service members overseas.”
“We live in an increasingly dangerous world, and this bipartisan legislation finds the vital balance between national security and protecting privacy and civil liberties,” Curtis added. “Although this bill includes significant reforms to ensure that the privacy of Americans is protected, I am committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to reform other aspects of FISA to further protect Americans’ constitutional rights.”