WASHINGTON – The Trump administration backed the extension of a surveillance program designed to spy on foreign citizens outside the U.S., but President Trump himself didn’t sound so crazy about it – suggesting in a tweet Thursday that the law allowed illegal surveillance of his presidential campaign.
“’House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,'” Trump tweeted hours before the House approved the measure. “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?”
In a later tweet, Trump appeared to soften his position, saying the vote concerned “foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”
Hours after Trump’s mixed messages, the House voted 256-164 to approve a six-year extension of Section 702 of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows intelligence officials to monitor foreign communications. It is currently scheduled to expire Jan. 19.
The Republican majority proceeded with the vote after Democrats had called for a delay in light of Trump’s criticism.
Trump has claimed, without evidence, that the Obama administration wiretapped him in 2016 in connection with allegations that Russia interfered in the election by hacking Democratic officials.
The FISA act specifically prohibits the targeting of American citizens or anyone residing in the U.S., but privacy advocates inside and outside Congress insist it sweeps up the electronic data of innocent Americans who may be communicating with foreign nationals, even when those foreigners aren’t suspected of terrorist activity.
In his tweets, Trump also noted that he has asked intelligence officials to “fix to the unmasking process,” the rules by which officials reveal the names of people who have been under surveillance. Republicans have raised concerns that the names of Trump campaign officials were “unmasked” by the Obama administration in transcripts of conversations with Russian officials.
Democrats mocked Trump for his criticism of the FISA law, and his repeated claims he was subjected to it. They noted that he probably got his information from watching Fox News.
“This is irresponsible, untrue, and frankly it endangers our national security,” tweeted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning.”
Previous presidents and lawmakers in both parties have backed the FISA law as an key tool for national security. On Thursday, the House will vote on two competing proposals: one by the House Intelligence Committee to largely extend existing law that is supported by intelligence agencies and one by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to curtail surveillance powers; that version is supported by civil liberties groups.
The White House officially backs the former. Wednesday night, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders urged the House to reject the alternate proposal and “preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives.”
In his tweets, the president also threw in an attack on the investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion with Trump associates.
The “dossier” is a reference to reports compiled by a former British intelligence agent working with a political opposition research firm. It alleges numerous contacts between the Trump team and the Russians as part of a plan to help elect Trump.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Russia’s election meddling, and any links it might have to the Trump campaign. It is not known how much of the federal investigation is based on information obtained through FISA warrants.
News reports say the FBI did obtain a FISA warrant on Carter Page, a member of a Trump campaign foreign policy advisory board.
Trump and his supporters say investigators have used false information in the dossier as part of their probe, a claim the president echoed in an earlier tweet. In an apparent response to the morning news program Fox & Friends, Trump suggested the FBI might have used the dossier “to spy on Trump Campaign.”