House lawmakers admit to being ‘held hostage’ over surveillance reforms

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(Image: file photo/CBS News)

Last week, House Judiciary Committee members voted — some reluctantly — to pass a bill for the first time since the Edward Snowden disclosures that many saw as “reform” in name only.

After a lengthy markup process, a far-reaching amendment aimed at curtailing the government’s ability to spy on Americans was dropped at the last moment. The bipartisan amendment, proposed by pro-privacy lawmakers Ted Poe and Zoe Lofgren, would fix the so-called “backdoor search” loophole to prevent the government from searching communications on Americans without a warrant because the intended targets were ostensibly foreign.

Rumors had it that if lawmakers passed the amendment — which already had broad support from privacy and rights groups, the committee’s bill would be scrapped by House leadership entirely, and would be blocked from ever reaching a floor vote.

“We have been assured in explicit terms that if we adopt this amendment today, leadership will not permit this bill to proceed to the house floor,” said ranking committee member John Conyers.

The alternative is that they defy the leadership, pass the amendment, and the bill fails in favor of a more extreme bill from the Senate, which critics argue would reauthorize existing laws almost in their entirety.

Faced with those option, unsurprisingly, the amendment failed in a 12-21 vote — including five Republicans who voted against party lines. Twenty lawmakers had previously voted against closing the loophole.

Several lawmakers expressed their frustration at the apparent meddling.

“I resent being held hostage by leadership that does not know the intensity of the work and the responsibilities of the judiciary committee,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, a long-time Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, who later voted down the amendment to ensure the bill passed the committee.

Jim Jordan, a Republican, called the Poe-Lofgren effort a “darned good amendment,” and voted for it, defying the wishes of his party’s leadership.

The intense rounds of debates and hearings come just weeks before several programs authorized under the controversial section 702 powers of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will expire on December 31 unless new provisions are passed. These are the same powers that authorized the controversial PRISM program, which collects data from servers of internet giants, the massive bulk collection of internet traffic, and the government’s computer and network hacking powers.

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