President
Donald Trump.
AP Photo/Evan
Vucci

  • President Donald Trump walked back his attack on the
    Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act made shortly after a
    White House statement signaling support for it.
  • “This is the act that may have been used … to so
    badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous
    administration and others?” Trump tweeted Thursday.
  • FISA came under scrutiny as the US intelligence
    community began looking into Russia’s interference in the 2016
    election.
  • Trump and his allies have falsely accused former
    President Barack Obama and the intelligence community of
    illegally wiretapping campaign associates.

President Donald Trump on Thursday criticized the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act hours after the White House press
secretary released a statement saying the administration
supported the law and opposed an amendment that would impose
limits on the government’s surveillance authority.

“‘House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,'” Trump
tweeted
, referring to a chyron earlier Thursday on “Fox &
Friends,” the Fox News morning show he often watches and praises
for its coverage of him.

“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the
discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the
Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” he
continued.

On the show, Judge Andrew Napolitano, a frequent Fox News
contributor, said: “Mr. President, this is not the way to go.
Spying is valid to find the foreign agents among us. But it’s got
to be based on suspicion and not an area code.”

Trump’s tweet appeared to contradict the statement that the White
House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, released on
Wednesday night signaling the administration’s strong support for
FISA and, specifically, its Section 702, which allows the US
government to track and collect the communications of foreigners
overseas without a warrant.

The statement urged the House of Representatives to vote against
the
amendment
to “preserve the useful role of FISA’s Section 702
authority plays in protecting American lives.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for
comment on the apparent contradiction.

The House just before noon on Thursday passed a bill to extend
the warrantless-surveillance program, but it rejected the
amendment.

Trump attempted to clarify his position a little more than an
hour after his initial tweet.

“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,”
he
tweeted
. “We need it! Get smart!”

The end of a major battle — and the beginning of a new one

Adam SchiffRep. Adam Schiff of
California.
Win McNamee/Getty
Images

Following Trump’s tweets, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the
ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, recommended
the FISA bill be withdrawn temporarily.

“In light of the significant concerns that have been raised by
members of our caucus, and in light of the irresponsible and
inherently contradictory messages coming out of the White House
today, I would recommend that we withdraw consideration of the
bill today, to give us more time to address the privacy questions
that have been raised, as well as to get a clear statement from
the administration about their position on the bill,” Schiff said
on the House floor.

“I do this reluctantly — Section 702, I think, is among the most
important of all of our surveillance programs,” Schiff continued.
“Nonetheless, I think the issues that have been raised will need
more time to be resolved.”

Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed Schiff’s calls for
withdrawing the bill.

Schiff also said Trump’s comments about Obama-era surveillance
were “blatantly untrue.”

“But they nonetheless cast an additional cloud over the debate
today,” he said. “A better course would be for us to defer
consideration.”

Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence
Committee, said Trump’s initial tweet about FISA was
“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,” Warner
tweeted
.

James Comey, the former FBI director, weighed in on the FISA
debate as well.

“Thoughtful leaders on both sides of the aisle know FISA section
702 is a vital and carefully overseen tool to protect this
country,” he tweeted Thursday. “This isn’t
about politics. Congress must reauthorize it.”

The House has been gearing up for a FISA fight since late
December, when it was due to be reauthorized. Congress passed a
short-term extension until January 19, but the new bill has
pitted House committees against each other — people working on
the Intelligence and Judiciary committees have told Business
Insider they’ve been “stuck in FISA hell” for weeks.

Devin NunesRep.
Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence
Committee.
AP Photo/J. Scott
Applewhite

Nunes enters the fray

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House
Intelligence Committee, inserted a last-minute “unmasking”
provision that would change the intelligence community’s process
for identifying US citizens caught up in foreign surveillance.

The provision, which was ultimately scrapped, threatened to
derail the committee’s FISA bill, two sources told Business
Insider. The Daily Beast first reported on Nunes’ efforts.

Nunes was forced to step aside from the committee’s investigation
into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election after he told
reporters he had seen classified documents that raised questions
about whether the Obama administration had improperly unmasked
members of the Trump campaign. He was recently cleared by the
House Ethics Committee, but he has continued to investigate
potential improprieties by the Justice Department and FBI.

Section 702 of FISA came under scrutiny as the intelligence
community began looking into Russia’s election interference and
whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to sway the race
in his favor.

Over the past year, Trump and his backers have characterized
reports that detailed communications between Trump campaign
associates and Russians before the election as evidence of
illegal wiretapping. Trump also accused former President Barack
Obama of ordering the unlawful wiretapping of Trump Tower during
the campaign.

Neither the White House nor the US intelligence community can
legally surveil US persons without cause. But under Section 702,
the identities of Americans whom foreigners are speaking with or
about may be included — but “masked” — in intelligence reports
summarizing the communications.

Michael FlynnMichael
Flynn.
AP Photo/Susan
Walsh

Such was the case with Michael Flynn, the former national
security adviser whose communications with Sergey Kislyak, who
until last summer was Russia’s ambassador to the US, were
incidentally collected as part of routine intelligence-gathering
while the US monitored Kislyak.

Flynn pleaded guilty in December to one count of making false
statements to investigators about his contacts with Russians.

CNN also reported last September that the FBI obtained a FISA
warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2016
to surveil Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. He
was
previously monitored under a separate FISA authorization
that
began in 2014, the report said, as part of an investigation into
US lobbying firms’ undisclosed work for the Ukrainian government.

To obtain a warrant to surveil Manafort, investigators would have
had to demonstrate to the court that there was probable cause to
believe he was acting as an unlawful foreign agent.

Manafort and his associate Rick Gates were indicted last October
on 12 counts, including failing to register as a foreign agent,
as part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation
into Russia’s election interference. They have pleaded not guilty
to all 12 charges.

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