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Defense policy bill includes short-term extension of controversial government surveillance program

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A critical annual defense policy bill that lawmakers are pushing to pass before the end of the year will include a short-term extension of a controversial law that permits warrantless surveillance of foreign nationals.

The issue has set up a leadership test for House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, and has already generated intense pushback from some on the right.

Lawmakers released a negotiated compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act this week, which temporarily extends authority for the surveillance program through April 19.

The law, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enables the US government to obtain intelligence by collecting communications records of foreign persons based overseas who are using US-based communications services.

Supporters argue Section 702 is a critical tool for safeguarding national security, but it has come under scrutiny from some lawmakers over alleged misuse.

The searches are governed by a set of internal rules and procedures designed to protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, but critics say that loopholes allow the FBI to search the data it collects for Americans’ information – as opposed to from foreign adversaries – without proper justification.

Tensions have flared on Capitol Hill over the extension in the defense policy bill.

Johnson and GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida were seen having what appeared to be an extended, heated conversation on the House floor Thursday. Gaetz told CNN the conversation was over NDAA, particularly the bill’s extension of Section 702.

“I’m concerned about the FISA extension,” said Gaetz, who does not support the FISA reauthorization in its current form.

Gaetz said of the conversation, “I wouldn’t consider it heated,” and described it as a “policy discussion.”

CNN observed Johnson and Gaetz pointing fingers at each other engaged in a prolonged back and forth that appeared to grow increasingly contentious.

Despite the conversation, Gaetz said Johnson still has his support and added, “I want the speaker to be successful.”

CNN has reached out to Johnson’s office to ask for comment.

On Wednesday, GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia expressed major frustration over leadership’s handling of the defense policy bill, citing a variety of issues. “They gave a clean authorization for FISA all the way into April, and they stuffed that in the bill too,” Greene told CNN’s Manu Raju. “That wasn’t something that we had talked about before.”

Gaetz also told CNN on Wednesday that Johnson will likely face strong opposition within the House Republican Conference over the must-pass legislation, saying he expects the speaker will get “some” backlash. “I think a lot of people were very concerned about this FISA extension. I think that we don’t want to see it. I think that we’re expressing our concern to the speaker,” Gaetz said.

Section 702 has become a cause celebre among conservative Republicans after revelations that a different section of the same law was inappropriately used to surveil Carter Page, an aide to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and has intensified amid intense Republican distrust of the US intelligence community.

US intelligence agencies reported earlier this year that the number of warrantless FBI searches of Americans’ electronic data under the controversial intelligence program dropped sharply from millions of searches in 2021 to over 100,000 last year. The report credited the drop to stronger safeguards that the FBI has put on analysts’ ability to search through the intelligence gathered through Section 702 authority.

Congressional leaders vow further action over FISA

Johnson said in a dear colleague letter Thursday that he intends to bring bills to the floor next week from the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee so that the chamber can consider “reforms and extensions of authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including the section 702 authorities.”

The speaker said the bills will be brought to the floor under a special rule “that provides members a fair opportunity to vote in favor of their preferred measure.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a joint statement Thursday on FISA reform legislation.

“Reforming FISA authorities to prevent abuse while ensuring our ability to defend our nation is a shared bipartisan, bicameral priority,” the statement said. “We commit to work in good faith with our Senate Chairs and Ranking Members and the House to negotiate a final bill that can be passed on a bipartisan basis by both the House and Senate early next year.”

Johnson similarly noted in his letter that he has received commitments from Schumer and McConnell that the Senate “will work in good faith on a final reform bill that can be passed in both chambers.”

Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, said that leadership is trying to find a “fair process” for working out the differences on the House floor between the two different bills.

“We don’t want to lose the reforms that came out of Judiciary and (Intelligence committees), but you obviously have got a difference between the two committees on a final piece, and that is on the warrants,” Scalise said. “That is going to have to get resolved on the House floor next week.”

“Everybody has got different opinions on how to handle FISA,” Scalise said. “Each side is pushing very aggressively for their approach. These are Republican committees so that is something that our members are ultimately going to have to decide.”

CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

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