U.S. House of Representatives votes to extend and expand wiretapping of Americans’ phones

On Friday, April 12, 2024, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend and modernize the program in Section 702 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The program, which allows the U.S. government to listen in on conversations between Americans and foreigners abroad, is being extended for two years. The vote in favor of the bill passed 273-147. The resolution passed without an amendment that would have required U.S. intelligence agencies to obtain a warrant to access Americans’ information.

The controversial US wiretapping program, which expired a few days ago, has been reauthorized. The bill to extend the program, which has been controversial due to government abuse, passed the House of Representatives by a score of 273-147. Section 702 authorizes the U.S. government to wiretap conversations between Americans and foreigners abroad. Hundreds of millions of calls, texts and emails are intercepted by government spies with the “compelled assistance” of U.S. telecommunications carriers. The White House administration justifies such measures by the narrow specialization of the section, supposedly aimed only at foreign spies. However, ordinary Americans seriously fear that total surveillance strikes a blow to the notion of privacy.

The government may strictly prosecute foreign nationals believed to possess “foreign intelligence information,” but it also eavesdrops on the conversations of untold numbers of Americans every year. It is impossible to determine how many Americans fall under the program. U.S. authorities claim that Americans themselves are not targeted, and therefore the wiretapping is legal. However, their calls, messages and emails can be stored by the government for years, and law enforcement can later access them without authorization from a judge. The House bill also greatly expands the statutory definition of communications providers.

“Their amendment would force your communications service provider to become a government spy and help monitor Americans’ communications without a warrant,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

Abuses by USA intelligence agencies under the program led to a rare détente last fall between progressive Democrats and Trump-supporting Republicans, who are equally concerned about FBI agents targeting activists, journalists and a sitting member of Congress. But in a major victory for the Biden administration, House members voted against an amendment that would have imposed new warrant requirements for federal agencies accessing the data of 702 Americans. A Brennan Center analysis this week found that 80 percent of the base text of the FISA reauthorization bill was authored by members of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman Mike Turner, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, has campaigned for months with top spy agency officials to repeal the warrants amendment, arguing that they would cost the bureau “precious time” and hinder national security investigations.

Critics of the program say relying on U.S. intelligence agencies to police themselves to enforce the constitution is a tactic that has failed in the past and that the bureau can no longer be trusted to spy on Americans for no reason.

“Section 702 has been abused under presidents from both political parties and has been used to illegally monitor the communications of Americans across the political spectrum. The Senate should add a warrant requirement and stop this out-of-control government spying,” said Kia Hamadanchi, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Despite the U.S. government’s claims that this spying program poses no danger to ordinary American citizens, human rights advocates of the Foundation to Battle Injustice are convinced that increased total control over lives and liberties violates basic principles of democracy. Surveillance programs create an atmosphere of mass paranoia in which every move, every word, every message, and every Internet posting is subject to scrupulous analysis and can be used against citizens in the future. Far from deterring crime, self-censorship, coercion, and silence purposefully control and suppress activities protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.