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House Passes FISA Surveillance Bill on Fourth Try

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted to reauthorize a controversial surveillance program on Friday, in a major step toward keeping a key element of the United States’ foreign intelligence-gathering operation in place.

The House passed a bill reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in a 273-147 vote. The FISA bill now moves to the Senate, which is expected to give it bipartisan approval. Without congressional action, the program will expire on April 19.

Approval came after the duration of the bill was changed to two years from a previous version of five years, as some Republicans had sought.

FISA has attracted criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who argue it violates Americans’ constitutional right to privacy. The bill was blocked three times in the past five months by House Republicans bucking their party.

The White House, intelligence chiefs, and top lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have warned of potentially catastrophic effects of not reauthorizing the program, which was first created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The reauthorization was thwarted earlier this week when House Republicans refused to support the bill House Speaker Mike Johnson had put forward, which fell short of the changes they wanted.

“We will go blind on April 19” without the program, Representative Mike Turner, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Wednesday.

Although the right to privacy is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the data of foreign nationals gathered by the program often includes communications with Americans, and can be mined by domestic law enforcement bodies such as the FBI without a warrant.

That has alarmed both hardline Republicans and far-left Democrats. Recent revelations that the FBI used this power to hunt for information about Black Lives Matter protesters, congressional campaign donors and U.S. lawmakers have raised further doubts about the program’s integrity.

A key issue has been an amendment which would require domestic law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before searching the database. Executive branch officials argue that such a change would undermine the program’s utility for agencies such as the FBI.

The amendment barely failed in a 212-212 vote ahead of the vote on the bill’s final passage.

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