My first year in Congress was the first time I was faced with the decision to reauthorize sections of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA). This law, enacted in 1978, nominally allowed for the collection of foreign intelligence on foreign agents suspected of terroristic activities or espionage. That all sounds legitimate. In concept, this law was intended to allow surveillance and spying on non-citizens who posed a terrorist threat to our country.
In practice, the law has been repeatedly abused to spy on American citizens. Notable abuses date back to 2002, and most recently, it was used as a political weapon against Donald Trump and his campaign. The reason it can be abused so easily is that the president can authorize spying without a court order. There is a process to get a warrant from a secret tribunal, or FISA court, but this process is merely a rubber stamp. Out of 22,990 applications for permission to spy between 1979 and 2006, only five were denied. That is the definition of a rubber stamp. That is not an independent check and balance.
In 2015, I voted against the USA Freedom Act, which I initially supported as it would have forced the FISA court to be more transparent and curbed the abuses that are still occurring. However, as is often the case, after the House passed a strong bill, the Senate weakened it substantially and I, therefore, was forced to withdraw my support. The fact that the abuses increased after passage of this law demonstrates my concerns were valid. As I said at the time:
“The original Freedom Act, of which I’m proud to have been an original cosponsor, would have prevented the federal government from unconstitutionally spying on innocent Americans, ended the bulk collection of private information and required the FISA court, which operates in secrecy, to become more transparent and operate like a real judicial court. These are necessary reforms demanded by Americans and our Constitution. Unfortunately, however, this legislation was changed at the last minute. Key reforms in the original bill were stripped or weakened to such an extent that I could not in good faith continue to support it. I am disappointed that the House accepted this watered down piece of trash, which was endorsed and pushed by the Obama administration and fails to remedy serious government abuses.”
I am not happy to say I told you so.
In 2011, I was told I should vote for FISA reauthorization because the government agents had learned their lesson and would never abuse their power again. And they said it again in 2012. And 2013, 2014 and on and on. You get the point. Nothing has changed. Indeed, under Obama (after the so-called reforms) the abuse of this law reached criminal proportions where FISA was weaponized as a political tool to harass, spy and undermine our election process and to (unsuccessfully) help the party in power remain in power through the election of Hillary Clinton. Such spying on U.S. citizens under color of law is illegal and can result in five years in jail.
I am not holding my breath for the Trump Department of Justice to convene a grand jury and start the indictment process against the Obama officials who violated the law and the civil rights of Donald Trump and his campaign staff. I can only do what is in my power to do, which is to say, “enough.”
I, along with more than 40 of my colleagues led by Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, have championed practical, constitutionally-sound reforms to the FISA program that would allow our intelligence and law enforcement agencies to effectively carry out their mission to keep our country safe while also upholding the bedrock constitutional protections American citizens have been guaranteed since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Unfortunately these reforms were not incorporated into the most recent reauthorization bill.
When I was sworn in as the Representative for Fourth Congressional District of Arizona, I took an oath to defend the Constitution. Allowing warrantless spying on American citizens is a violation of the Constitution.
This is why I voted against FISA 702 Reauthorization.