Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) late Tuesday withdrew his support for a House amendment aimed at curbing the FBI’s ability to collect the internet search and browsing records of Americans without a warrant.
A Wyden spokesperson told Gizmodo that the Oregon senator’s decision came shortly after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) provided a statement to the New York Times that downplayed the scope of the protections.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who cosponsored the amendment with Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), had earlier in the day characterized the deal as stopping the FBI from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to acquire, without a warrant, “a list of everyone who has visited a particular website, watched a particular video or made a particular search query” unless federal agents could “guarantee” Americans’ internet records were not included.
In a statement to the Times, Schiff appeared to dismiss that interpretation, saying the hammered-out language left the FBI room to acquire information on a website’s visitors without a warrant, American or not, so long as the records contain foreign intelligence information.
Wyden, who cosponsored his own amendment with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) in the Senate aimed at prohibiting such monitoring, withdrew his support for Lofgren’s amendment based on Schiff’s remarks, saying that he no longer believes it will protect Americans from dragnet surveillance at the FBI.
“The House Intelligence Committee chairman’s assertion that the Lofgren-Davidson amendment does not fully protect Americans from warrantless collection flatly contradicts the intent of Wyden-Daines, and my understanding of the amendment agreed to earlier today,” Wyden said in a statement to Gizmodo.
“It is now clear that there is no agreement with the House Intelligence Committee to enact true protections for Americans’ rights against dragnet collection of online activity, which is why I must oppose this amendment, along with the underlying bill, and urge the House to vote on the original Wyden-Daines amendment,” Wyden said.
Wyden’s trust in the amendment, which is notably ambiguous, was based on his belief that the secret FISA court would interpret the language in a specific way, an aide had said. But Schiff’s remarks to the Times directly contradicted that belief. Both Wyden and Lofgren had circulated carefully written statements earlier in the day designed to publicly reinforce their interpretation of the text.
Wyden’s decision is likely to have a significant impact on the amendment’s broader support. Many lawmakers view Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as Washington’s leading privacy hawk and an authority on the inner-workings of domestic U.S. surveillance.
“This is Rep. Schiff and intelligence hawks working overtime to protect the surveillance state status quo,” Davidson, the amendment’s cosponsor, told Gizmodo. “Hopefully everyone will wake up and defend the Constitution. It’s time for the House to protect one of Americans’ most basic freedoms—the right to privacy.”
The deal between Schiff and Lofgren was negotiated over Memorial Day weekend. Sources with direct knowledge of the discussions said that Schiff’s initial offers contained glaring loopholes that seemed to enable domestic spying on Americans internet activities.
Schiff and Lofgren could not be immediately reached for comment.
Democratic leaders signaled last week that a vote to reauthorize key surveillance powers used by the FBI to investigate espionage and terrorism may come as early as Wednesday.
Demand Progress, a progressive nonprofit that’s pressing for increasing legal protections against warrantless surveillance, recommended that House lawmakers vote against the amendment and the surveillance re-authorization in an email Tuesday night. At the same time, Politico reports that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has asked Democratic leaders to postpone the entire vote.
President Trump has also asked House Republicans to vote against the entire bill while, without a shred of evidence, spouting claims that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden ordered the FBI to illegally spy on his 2016 campaign.