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Trump throws FISA reauthorization into confusion with conflicting statements

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WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday appeared to give life to an effort to dramatically alter a critical intelligence collection program that his own administration has sought to rebuff, throwing the fate of the program in jeopardy just more than a week before it is set to expire and just hours before key votes were expected on the program in the House of Representatives.

In a morning tweet, Trump alleged without evidence that the Obama administration may have used the program that gives intelligence agencies broad authority to monitor terrorist and foreign adversary communications, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to “so badly surveil [sic] and abuse” his presidential campaign.

Shortly after that, the president issued another tweet in which he appeared to endorse reauthorizing the program despite his complaints. “With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it!”

The comments came just hours after the White House issued a statement strongly urging Congress to reject an amendment supported by civil libertarians and privacy advocates that would put new limits on security agencies’ ability to access communications from Americans swept up incidentally by the program. The White House said the amendment would “re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11.”

Just last month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas, warned that allowing the program to lapse would return the United States “to a pre-9/11 mindset in terms of how we conduct our intelligence sharing.”

“You'll recall the deep criticisms the intelligence committee for not sharing, for creating stovepipes and walls and barriers, it's variously described. What Section 702 was designed and intended to do was to knock down those walls,” he said at an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

It wasn’t clear if the president was conflating his longstanding concerns over unmasking procedures with the types of reforms advocated by an unusual bipartisan coalition.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one of the chief supporters of the incidental collection amendment, suggested during an appearance on “Morning Joe” that he may have helped influence the president’s thinking in recent conversations.

“The way I understand the president’s position is that he wants some of the reforms, that he thinks that we ought to have a warrant to look at this and that there’s a possibility that people with bias in the intelligence community could use that bias to actually abuse the system,” he said.

The main issue is contention is not about listening to terrorists talking to foreigners in real time. Nearly everyone agrees that should keep happening. But under the eavesdropping authorized by Section 702, the NSA incidentally sweeps in a lot of communications of Americans. And the data is collected without an individualized warrant.

Critics, including Paul on the right and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on the left, want to impose a requirement that the FBI go to court and get a warrant every time it wants to search the data for the communications of an American. They argue that government should not be able to prosecute someone for tax evasion if her incriminating emails happen to be swept up by the NSA or the FBI. But the FBI objects to this requirement, saying the data was lawfully collected and a warrant requirement would slow their agents down. They are not using this data to prosecute Americans for tax evasion, they say--they are using it for terrorism cases.

The House was set to vote on FISA renewal legislation Thursday morning. Neither party had been willing to predict whether or not the amendment calling for more wholesale changes would pass, but the intelligence community has been aggressively lobbying against it. The president's confusing statements Thursday morning led House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to request that those votes be delayed but leadership is going forward with them.

Already, renewal of the FISA program has faced hurdles over so-called unmasking procedures. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes initially pushed for new restrictions on the ability of spy agencies to reveal the identity of Americans who are not the target of investigation when they come into contact with terrorists or foreign agents.

The issue has special resonance for Trump, who has questioned why the Obama administration may have revealed the identities of Trump campaign figures who interacted with foreign officials.

Those unmasking procedure changes were included in an initial version of the FISA reauthorization last December, but were pulled as it appeared they would jeopardize the program; Democrats unanimously opposed the legislation when it was voted on by the committee.

Just this week, Trump signed a memo ordering the Director of National Intelligence to recommend changes that could be made internally. Though they would not have the force of law, Nunes has said he would support renewing the program still.

Top lawmakers strongly criticized the president’s last-minute intervention into the sensitive debate.

“This is irresponsible, untrue, and frankly it endangers our national security. FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning.,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in his own tweet.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., echoed those sentiments, saying, "This issue is paramount in importance, difficult, and complex and all the president’s doing is confusing the American public, which is really unfortunate for our national security." 

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