Speaker Johnson appears to backtrack, will now include reauthorization of FISA surveillance program in defense spending bill

December 7, 2023
by
Ben Marquis

Earlier this week, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) garnered high praise for appearing to stand strong against an effort to slip a "clean" reauthorization of a controversial federal surveillance program into a must-pass defense spending bill.

Unfortunately, it now appears that Johnson caved under pressure and agreed to allow the spy program's reauthorization without reform to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, according to Breitbart.

That controversial program is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows federal agents to conduct warrantless wiretaps and database searches, ostensibly only targeting foreign spies and terrorists but which has been abused for years to go after American citizens.

Short-term, reform-free extension of FISA Section 702 added to NDAA spending bill

When some members of Congress had attempted to slip a reform-free reauthorization of the FISA Section 702 program into the NDAA earlier this week, Speaker Johnson initially rejected that move and instead set the stage for a pair of bipartisan reform bills to be considered on their own accord at a later date.

Yet, on Wednesday afternoon, Punchbowl News reporter Andrew Desiderio revealed that negotiators had been discussing a potential short-term extension of Section 702, and wrote, "There’s now an agreement on this, per sources. FISA extension until April, will be attached to NDAA."

He went on to observe that it was "wild how much Johnson fluctuated on this issue" over a matter of days, in that he had first supported a FISA extension until February, then said there'd be no extension, and now supports an extension until April.

FISA reform bills were set to be considered on the House floor soon

Breitbart reported that many Republican members of the House were displeased by Speaker Johnson's apparent deal reached with Democrats to extend the controversial surveillance program, if only temporarily, amid bipartisan calls for necessary reforms from both conservatives and progressives.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who helped lead the charge on FISA reform, told reporters of Johnson's move, "I wish that wasn't the case. I was encouraging people to just wait for both bills … the Intel is marking theirs up tomorrow. Ours is ready now."

His remarks referenced a reform bill he helped write in the House Judiciary Committee as well as a competing measure in the House Intelligence Committee, both of which were supposed to have been brought to the House floor for consideration and a stand-alone vote shortly.

FISA critics are not happy

Rep. Jordan was not alone in criticizing Speaker Johnson's move, as Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), another staunch advocate of FISA reform, tweeted, "Adding Section 702 of FISA to the NDAA not only undermines the American people who oppose warrantless mass surveillance, this action would jeopardize our ability to pass a strong national defense package. Over 50 of my colleagues agree."

Attached to his post was a bipartisan letter signed by more than 50 Republicans and Democrats that stressed the urgency of reforming the federal surveillance program to some degree if it was to be reauthorized and not sunsetted.

Another outspoken proponent of FISA reform, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), also appeared to call out Johnson for agreeing with Democrats to strip out certain conservative policy riders in the NDAA along with the temporary but reform-free extension of Section 702 authorization.

"So the @HouseGOP is going to work with Democrats to pass a crappy, watered down NDAA (losing most of the stuff we fought for -- abortion, transgender, CRT/DEI) along with an almost 4 month continuation of FISA (spying on Americans with no reforms yet)?" Roy said.

It will be interesting to see how things play out going forward, as there is now a real risk that the NDAA may not be passed due to the inclusion of the FISA reauthorization, that the necessary reform bills will fail to garner sufficient support on their own, and that Johnson's brief tenure as speaker may already be in jeopardy.

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