Patriot Act surveillance powers left unrenewed after Trump threatens veto

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Politicians in the U.S. have shelved a vote to renew government surveillance powers, meaning Americans needn’t resort to using their trusty VPNs just yet.

The U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday (May 27) indefinitely postponed a vote to renew three aspects of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Those three provisions were last renewed by the USA Freedom Act of 2015 but expired on March 15.

The three provisions in question were first made into law by the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, but were intended to be temporary and must be renewed by new legislation every three or four years. 

The provisions are: the ability to obtain business records (presumably including records of customer browsing histories kept by internet service providers) without a warrant; permission for "roving" wiretaps that do not need to be reauthorized when a suspect under surveillance changes phones or email accounts; and the ability to surveil individuals who may be planning lone-wolf attacks unconnected to any foreign entity. 

This week, the renewal bill appeared as H.R. 6172, the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act, in the House. But it was taken off the floor when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi realized that it had lost support both among liberal Democrats and Trump-allied Republican congressmen. 

A similar renewal bill had already passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support, although some Senate Republicans felt it did not extend enough surveillance powers to federal authorities. An earlier version of the renewal bill had easily cleared the House in March.

But with President Donald Trump suddenly opposing the renewal bill and encouraging Republicans to oppose it, there were not enough votes to pass the legislation to restore warrantless access that began under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Trump appeared to believe that the provisions, which are technically amendments to the FISA law of 1978, were connected to the FBI investigation into Carter Page, a former campaign staffer investigated for connections to Russia. 

But while the FBI's surveillance of Page was indeed approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court created by FISA 1978, commonly known as the "FISA Court," the FISA provisions up for renewal in the House this week had no bearing on the investigation into Page.

Republican leaders, normally staunch supporters of greater surveillance powers, did not try to clarify the situation to the president.

'Incredibly important blockage'

On Thursday morning (May 28), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer tweeted: “At the Speaker's request, I am withdrawing consideration of the FISA Act. 

“The two-thirds of the House GOP that voted for this bill in March have indicated they are going to vote against it now at the request of POTUS. I believe this to be against the security interest of the U.S.”

What’s perhaps surprising is that when the House voted on the powers in March, they passed 278-136. Out of these votes, 126 came from Republicans. 

After threatening to veto the vote on Wednesday, Donald Trump wasn’t afraid to convey his happiness when the bill was pulled from the House floor. 

He wrote on Twitter: "Thank you to our GREAT Republican Congressmen & Congresswomen on your incredibly important blockage last night of a FISA Bill that would just perpetuate the abuse that produced the Greatest Political Crime In the History of the U.S., the Russian Witch-Hunt. Fantastic Job!”

The House will now try to reconcile with the Senate in order to craft a new bill that can pass both houses.

Investigations that were launched before March 15 can still use the powers granted by the expired 2015 legislation.

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, The Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan!