The House Passes Mass Surveillance Bill

Foreign threats are once again driving support for widespread government spying.

What’s happening: The House of Representatives passed a controversial bill that would expand the federal government’s spying powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA authorizations are set to expire on Friday.

What is FISA? The 1978 surveillance law, expanded after the 9/11 attacks, allows the government to obtain private information without a warrant from a judge.

  • History: FISA investigations give federal agencies the authority to access U.S. citizens’ data, allegedly to track foreign threats — which the FBI has abused in the past. Critics worry the strengthening of FISA powers will seep into the private sector.

The bill: Under existing laws, the U.S. government can force communications providers such as Google to hand over users’ data. The new bill would expand the types of businesses it could surveil, including almost any entity that provides wifi, and compel ordinary employees to cede data access.

  • Bipartisan agreement: House lawmakers killed an amendment by Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) that would require warrants before spying on Americans.

  • GOP infighting: House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) angered hard-line Republicans by voting against the amendment and in support of the bill.

Why it matters: The current debate over expanded surveillance comes when the U.S. is supposedly facing foreign threats that have not been seen in decades. If the post-9/11 era has proven anything, it’s that those fears are effective in driving support for unprecedented government action.

The Hamas threat: The Biden administration and some Republicans have referenced the threat of Hamas to Americans while arguing for warrantless surveillance.

  • Wray’s view: FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress the Israel-Hamas War has prompted “a rogues’ gallery of foreign terrorist organizations” to “call for attacks against Americans.” Letting FISA powers expire or restricting them would “put Americans’ lives at risk,” Wray said.

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