House Speaker Mike Johnson

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) listens during an April 9, 2024 press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

'Five-Alarm Fire' as GOP House Speaker Tries to Ram Through Spying Bill

"Absentsignificant amendment, RISAA will do nothing to prevent the government's repeated abuses of Section 702 to spy on Americans," critics said.

Update (3:45 pm ET):

Nineteen Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday blocked the GOP speaker's effort to move forward with reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a controversial spying authority historically abused by government agencies.

"The failure of today's vote makes clear that even with the speaker's finger on the scale, Congress won't reauthorize FISA without meaningful privacy reforms," responded Jake Laperruque, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology's Security and Surveillance Project.

"The path forward is clear: We need strong reforms to Section 702, including closing the backdoor search loophole and data broker loophole," he added. "Another short-term extension ignores the genuine privacy concerns that have been raised by members of both parties. It's time to bring a bill with genuine reforms to the House floor."


With just over a week left for the U.S. Congress to renew a major—and highly controversial—state surveillance program before it expires, privacy defenders on Tuesday warned that so-called "compromise" legislation is little more than a ploy to permanently reauthorize warrantless government spying on American citizens.

The Biden administration and members of Congress from both parties are seeking to extend Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits warrantless surveillance of non-U.S. citizens but also captures the communications of Americans.

Following a Tuesday markup session by the House Rules Committee and Wednesday consultations with intelligence officials, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is expected to call a vote on the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act (RISAA) on Thursday. The bill would reauthorize Section 702 for five years while enacting what supporters call a series of reforms meant to protect Americans against state surveillance.

"Absent significant amendment, RISAA will do nothing to prevent the government's repeated abuses of Section 702 to spy on Americans," said the Brennan Center for Justice, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and FreedomWorks in a joint statement.

Introduced in February by Rep. Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), RISAA would reauthorize what the congresswoman called "an indispensable tool that protects us from national security threats within the United States and abroad."

Congress passed a short-term extension of Section 702 last December, with lawmakers unable to agree on whether and how to reform the contentious law that has been abused hundreds of thousands of times, including to spy on protestors, congressional donors, journalists, and others.

RISAA is meant to be a compromise between the Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act and the FISA Reform and Reauthorization Act. The former bill was supported by privacy defenders, while the ACLU warned that the latter "would greatly expand the government's ability to spy on Americans without a warrant."

Proponents are touting RISAA's 56 purported reforms. Johnson asserted last week that the legislation "will establish new procedures to rein in the FBI, increase accountability at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), impose penalties for wrongdoing, and institute unprecedented transparency across the FISA process so we no longer have to wait years to uncover potential abuses."

However, civil liberties defenders warn that many of RISAA's so-called reforms are little more than window dressing that preserve the status quo.

"Making 56 ineffective tweaks to a fundamentally broken law is not reforming it," said the Brennan Center, EPIC, and FreedomWorks.

Johnson had previously supported closing the so-called data broker loophole—which the government exploits to purchase sensitive information—and the backdoor search loophole, through which domestic law enforcement agencies can access Americans' communications without a warrant. While the House is expected to vote Thursday on an amendment to close the backdoor search loophole, lawmakers are also likely to vote on three FISA expansions and special protections that only apply to members of Congress.

"This is so disappointing—when Speaker Johnson was on the Judiciary Committee with me, he was in our coalition fighting for major FISA reforms to protect sensitive data. Now that he's speaker, he's folding to spy agencies who want to violate your privacy," Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) wrote on social media Tuesday.

Jayapal lamented that RISAA says the "FBI has to notify congressmembers to spy on us, but regular Americans can be spied on without a warrant?"

Demand Progress policy director Sean Vitka said in a statement, "In a truly staggering betrayal of public trust, Speaker Johnson is now not only sabotaging votes on overwhelmingly popular privacy protections for Americans, he is trying to ram through the Intelligence Committee's expansions of FISA."

"This is a five-alarm fire, born from Speaker Johnson's apparent decision to jam his thumb on the scale and sell out everyone in the United States to foreign data brokers," Vitka added.

Furthermore, RISAA contains a provision that Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center, warns "could result in the permanent reauthorization" of Section 702 "without a single reform."

"The House must NOT pass any legislation that could be read to permanently reauthorize Section 702, let alone permanently reauthorizing it without a single reform," Goitein said. "This provision of RISAA must be fixed, or the bill should be DOA."

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.