Rep. Adam Schiff worked behind the scenes to ensure the White House had expanded surveillance powers in Section 215 of the Patriot Act by selling out the civil rights of immigrants, a coalition of privacy groups alleged Wednesday.
"The consequences of Schiff's actions are inescapable: In trying to hand the Trump administration Section 215, he repeatedly sabotaged efforts to protect privacy," Demand Progress senior counsel Sean Vitka said in a statement. "This is dangerously bad law and dangerously bad oversight."
FBI may have used Patriot Act to collect enormous amounts of data that detail when US residents visited specific websites, downloaded specific content. Statements by Schiff suggest the gov may have secretly contorted the law to justify dragnet surveillance of people in US. #ampFW
— FreedomWorks (@FreedomWorks) August 5, 2020
According to a letter (pdf) signed by a number of groups from the right and left including Americans for Prosperity, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Free Press Action, FreedomWorks, and the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability, Schiff during negotiations over the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in May altered privacy protections for web activity in the Act's Section 215 so that the government could still target immigrants—including recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), also known as Dreamers.
That action, Vitka said, allowed the California Democrat—who serves as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee—to provide protections for "dragnet internet surveillance by cutting Dreamers and many other immigrants out of a proposed protection, which, in context, appears to have served as a loophole to protect something else: potential undisclosed surveillance of Americans' internet browsing and search histories."
— Demand Progress (@demandprogress) August 5, 2020
According to Gizmodo, Schiff was joined in his efforts by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to ensure the Trump administration retained extraordinary spying powers:
In May, Democrats engaged in closed-door negotiations over a proposed amendment aimed at shielding U.S. residents who are not suspected of violating the law from having their search and web browsing histories seized by the FBI without a warrant. Democratic and Republican sources on Capitol Hill told Gizmodo that the efforts were continually hindered by top Democrats, including Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a former and ex-officio committee member.
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Sources with knowledge of the secret meetings said that months-long efforts to introduce privacy reforms were undermined at nearly every juncture by the "national security Democrats" in control of the party. A critical vote in February was abruptly canceled, for instance, to stop a pro-privacy amendment from being attached to the FISA reauthorization bill. The bill itself was effectively shelved by Pelosi in June in an apparent effort to stymie bipartisan calls for reform.
"Throughout the 2020 PATRIOT Act reauthorization fight, Schiff has run point for [Attorney General] Bill Barr to make sure Congress doesn't know what the law it is considering means, including whether it allows the FBI and NSA to conduct dragnet surveillance of Americans' internet activity," said Vitka.
In May, Common Dreams reported on the negotiations and the actions of both Pelosi and Schiff to hold back information on the program lawmakers were voting on. Comments Schiff made at the time to Charlie Savage of the New York Times, Wednesday's letter suggest, indicate that "the government may have secretly contorted the law to justify dragnet surveillance of the internet activity of people in the United States, regardless of their United States personhood."
A regular on MSNBC, Schiff has made a name for himself over the last three years as one of President Donald Trump's most vocal critics and supporter of immigrant rights. But his actions with respect to the Dreamers and his efforts to ensure the president maintains control over an unaccountable and incredibly powerful government surveillance regime tell a different story.
That those actions were taken in secret, Vitka said, just shows that letting the intelligence collection program continue is unpopular among lawmakers.
"Ironically, if Schiff has been trying to sneak ratification of such surveillance through Congress, he has unwittingly demonstrated that he knows Congress wouldn't support it," said Vitka.