Was Donald Trump for the PATRIOT Act before he was against it? Later today, the House will vote on reauthorizing the controversial Section 702 of the law, which has come under fire for its potentially overbroad reach. Opponents of the current law have offered a “USA Rights” amendment to the bill aiming to curtail government surveillance authority and jurisdiction, which has picked up bipartisan support. Republican leadership opposes the USA Rights amendment, and at least as of yesterday, so did the Trump administration, which issued a statement urging the House to reject it and preserve 702 as is:
here’s the very strong @PressSec statement last night opposing the amendment being offered to 702 reauth today. Admin has been hand/glove with GOP leaders on this effort to this point pic.twitter.com/4jbYmQlKEA
— Phil Mattingly (@Phil_Mattingly) January 11, 2018
And that held up for … oh, twelve hours or so. This morning, Trump blamed Section 702 for the “discredited and phony” Steele dossier produced by Fusion GPS and other abuses with this message on his favorite platform:
“House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.” This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
That may complicate matters for the Section 702 renewal, which has already been delayed once. Privacy advocates have made a strong push to roll back 702, efforts led by both conservatives and liberals in both chambers of Congress:
The pro-privacy protection group includes Republicans such as Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows, Tea Party member Justin Amash and Rep. Ted Poe, along with Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Jerrold Nadler. It also includes Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Steve Daines.
On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee decided to allow debate on an amendment backed by a contingent of 40 lawmakers led by Amash and Lofgren. The amendment would require the FBI to obtain a warrant before it begins searching the NSA’s surveillance database for information on American citizens.
The group is pushing back against legislation passed by the House Intelligence Committee that would require a warrant only if the information the FBI obtains is to be used in a criminal proceeding — a bar that Amash, Lofgren and Nadler say is so low that it is meaningless.
Lofgren also is sounding the alarm on the scope of collection. Unlike the 2015 clash among lawmakers on provisions of the Patriot Act that revolved around intelligence agencies being able to collect metadata on Americans’ phone calls — data that showed who called whom, when and for how long, but not the content — the current debate involves content of calls and emails.
Without some changes to 702, Rand Paul has threatened to filibuster the 702 renewal in the Senate:
“My worry is that they also collect information on millions of Americans, and I don’t want that database to be searched without a warrant,” the Kentucky Republican said.
He added, “I will filibuster and do whatever to stop that.”
Paul said he would vote to reauthorize Section 702, however, if there are protections in place for Americans’ private information, and added that he supports the USA Rights Act, another amendment to the program proposed by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan.
Bear in mind that 702 reauthorization is a high priority not just for the intel community, but also for Trump’s own Department of Justice and its domestic counter-terrorism efforts. Until this morning, they probably figured that they could focus their resources on Capitol Hill to push it through. Now they may need to reconvince the commander in chief all over again. Otherwise, Trump’s broadside this morning will give political cover to the USA Rights amendment’s advocates, and might even spell trouble for Section 702 entirely.
And so far, we don’t even know why Trump appears to have reversed himself, or at least the White House position which presumably got it from Trump. Is internal communication that bad, or is Trump that mercurial?