WASHINGTON – After a few confusing tweets, President Donald Trump on Thursday pushed the House to renew a critical national security program that allows spy agencies to collect intelligence on foreign targets abroad.
The House is expected to vote on a version that would put restrictions on how the FBI could use information on Americans that is inadvertently swept up by the program. “This vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land,” Trump said in a morning tweet. “We need it! Get smart!”
But before that he sent out a tweet suggesting that the program was used to collect information that might have been used to “badly surveil and abuse” his campaign.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said Trump’s tweets were “inaccurate, conflicting and confusing.” He suggested that a vote on the bill should be delayed until the White House’s position can be ascertained. The Republicans said the vote should be held.
The program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows U.S. spy agencies to collect information on foreign targets outside the United States. Americans’ communications are inadvertently swept up in the process and privacy advocates and some lawmakers want to require the FBI to get a warrant if it wants to query and view the content of Americans’ communications that are in the database to build domestic crime cases.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “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?”
Minutes later, he backed the program.
The FBI and intelligence agencies say being able to query the database is essential to keeping America safe.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has said that tips are flooding into the FBI by the thousands. It’s at this initial stage — where leads are sifted and prioritized — when foreign intelligence can be queried to help connect dots and spot possible national security threats, he said.
In a recent speech, Wray said: “I’m going to say this over and over and over again. Every court to look at 702 and the way it’s been used, including the FBI queries, have found it fully consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”
Lawmakers in the House are weighing whether the FBI should have to get a warrant to either query information on Americans in the database or seek a warrant only if the FBI wants to actually view the contents of the material and use it for investigating and prosecuting domestic crimes.
The Trump administration had wanted the program to be reauthorized without change, but later said it was willing to back legislation that would impose moderate restrictions on the FBI access to Americans’ communications.
The White House opposes a requirement that would require the FBI to get a warrant before even querying lawfully collected foreign intelligence for domestic cases, although not in emergencies or cases involving national security.