Congress is gearing up for a high-profile fight over reauthorizing a handful of controversial surveillance programs months before the 2020 election.
After punting late last year to give themselves more time to negotiate, lawmakers now have 15 working days to figure out whether and how to reauthorize expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act by the March 15 deadline.
The policy battle comes as tensions are already running high in Washington after a weeks-long firefight emanating from the Justice Department which will also be at the center of the surveillance discussion and with the November election injecting a higher dose of politics into any discussion involving Congress and President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE.
Attorney GeneralWilliam BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter split on Bloomberg video | Sanders briefed on Russian efforts to help campaign | Barr to meet with Republicans ahead of surveillance fight Sanders says he was briefed on Russian effort to help campaign MORE will meet with Senate Republicans during a closed-door policy lunch on Tuesday, his first face-to-face with most senators since the controversy over the departments handling of the case involving Trump associate Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneBill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn Roger Stone moves to disqualify judge Roger Stone deserves a new trial MORE.
But two sources confirmed to The Hill that the lunch was planned weeks before the current flare-up between the Justice Department and the White House. The topic, according to the two sources, is expected to be expiring surveillance provisions.
Reauthorization of these certain programs is a priority for both Leader [Mitch] McConnell and AG Barr, a source said.
Among the expiring provisions that Congress needs to make decisions on is a controversial records program, known as Section 215, that gathered metadata on domestic text messages and phone calls.
They'll also need to make decisions on two other provisions one authorizing roving wiretaps and the other on lone wolf surveillance authority.
The biggest sticking point will be the metadata program that will put a spotlight on divisions between privacy hawks and leadership, the House and Senate and even GOP lawmakers and the White House.
Though the National Security Agency (NSA) shuttered the program, and advised the White House to officially end it, then-director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTrump's Intel moves spark Democratic fury Russian interference reports rock Capitol Hill Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter split on Bloomberg video | Sanders briefed on Russian efforts to help campaign | Barr to meet with Republicans ahead of surveillance fight MORE urged Congress to reauthorize it.Barr is expected to stick with that position when he speaks with senators.
Coats noted that the NSA had suspended the program and deleted call records, saying the decision was made after balancing the programs relative intelligence value, associated costs, and compliance and data integrity concerns."
"However, as technology changes, our adversaries tradecraft and communications habits will continue to evolve and adapt," he added. "In light of this dynamic environment, the Administration supports reauthorization of this provision."
But Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump's new intel chief makes immediate changes, ousts top official Intel officials warned House lawmakers Russia is interfering to get Trump reelected: NYT Pelosi joins pressure campaign on Huawei MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump's Intel moves spark Democratic fury Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter split on Bloomberg video | Sanders briefed on Russian efforts to help campaign | Barr to meet with Republicans ahead of surveillance fight MORE (D-Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, quietly introduced legislation that would end the phone metadata program going against the administrations request.
In addition to terminating that program as soon as the bill is enacted it would provide an eight-year reauthorization of the other two programs.
The bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: 2020 candidates look to South Carolina Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Barr to attend Senate GOP lunch on Tuesday MORE (R-S.C.) has described himself as torn on whether or not to reauthorize Section 215.
A Democratic aide, asked if they had gotten guidance on if Judiciary or leadership would move the Burr-Warner bill in committee or on the floor by March 15, told The Hill: Not really.
The panel includes privacy hawks like Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe Hill's Morning Report AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R-Utah). Lee and Leahy are working on reforms related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). A spokesman for Lee said that ideally their forthcoming ideas could be included as part of the debate over reauthorizing the USA Freedom provisions.
Surveillance debates have spotlighted fierce clashes among Senate Republicans in recent years.
When the Senate debated the USA Freedom Act, and the Patriot Act measures that pre-dated it, in 2015, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Pelosi names first-ever House whistleblower ombudsman director The Hill's Morning Report AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Ky.) used the chambers procedural levers to force a brief lapse of the surveillance programs.
He also successfully blocked multiple efforts by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSanders is a risk, not a winner Buttigieg sounds alarm after Sanders wins Nevada Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way MORE (R-Ky.) to clear a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, a tactic Paulquickly used to rack in fundraising cashfor his 2016 presidential bid. McConnell has not yet taken a public position on the upcoming USA Freedom debate, something hes likely to be quizzed on after Tuesdays lunch.
As Republicans are set to meet with Barr, the House Judiciary Committee has put reauthorization of the USA Freedom provisions on its business meeting agenda for Wednesday.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Nadler demands answers from Barr on 'new channel' for receiving Ukraine info from Giuliani Trump predicts Ocasio-Cortez will launch primary bid against Schumer MORE (D-N.Y.) hasnt yet unveiled what the committee will be voting on, and spokesmen didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. But a House Intelligence Committee aide noted that staff on the two panels are continuing to work on potential legislation.
The aide declined to say if the forthcoming legislation would end the metadata program, even as leadership is under pressure from progressives to take a hard line.
Twenty House progressives sent a letter to Nadler last year warning that they would oppose a reauthorization measure that does not completely repeal the call records program and also called for additional civil liberties protections to be built into the law.
"Any meaningful reform must repeal the [call detail records] program, which is an unnecessary violation of the rights of people in the United States and a threat to our democracy," the lawmakers wrote.
Further complicating calculations for passing a bill in roughly two weeks, some Republicans are saying they want to use the reauthorization debate to work in changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts.
The FISA court, authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, is made up of 11 judges who serve seven-year terms and are selected by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The judges are responsible for signing off on or rejecting warrant applications submitted as part of intelligence gathering and national security operations.
The courts jumped into the spotlight late last year when Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz found a total of 17 "significant inaccuracies and omissions" in the applications to monitor Trump campaign aide Carter Page, taking particular issue with applications to renew the FISA warrant and chastising the FBI for a lack of satisfactory explanations for those mistakes.
Reps. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsSunday shows preview: 2020 candidates look to South Carolina Overnight Defense: Seven day 'reduction in violence' starts in Afghanistan | US, Taliban plan to sign peace deal Feb. 29 | Trump says top intel job has four candidates Trump says he is considering four candidates for intelligence chief MORE (R-Ga.) and Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesJudge dismisses Nunes' lawsuit against Fusion GPS Trump's new intel chief makes immediate changes, ousts top official Overnight Energy: EPA moves to limit financial pressure on 'forever chemical' manufacturers | California sues Trump over water order| Buttigieg expands on climate plan MORE (R-Calif.) the top Republicans on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, respectively sent a letter to Nadler over the recess pitching the USA Freedom debate as a vehicle for making FISA changes.
Any legislation devoid of necessary reforms to address the abuse of the intelligence community against a presidential campaign and even our sitting president, including lies and fraud engaged in by top-level FBI officials, misses that mark, they wrote.
There have been bipartisan calls for FISA reformsafter the Horowitz report, but inserting it into the middle of the surveillance debate could inject another political angle into what will already be a contentious debate.
But Collins and Nunes argued that FISA reforms should be a bipartisan line in the sand, and urged Nadler to not ignore historic abuses directed against the campaign of a president you don't support.
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