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Republicans Break with Barr on FISA Renewal, Urge Reforms before Reauthorization

Attorney General William Barr speaks in Washington, D.C., December 10, 2019. (Al Drago/Reuters)

Republicans in both the House and the Senate are unhappy that attorney general William Barr wants a simple reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, with sources telling National Review that GOP critics of FISA are “adamant” that serious reforms must be implemented before the reauthorization.

Barr reportedly told GOP senators during a lunch Tuesday that they should move to reauthorize the expiring portions of FISA’s surveillance powers as he continues to implement internal reforms. The intelligence community also supports a clean reauthorization prior to the implementation of significant reforms.

Barr’s position is also backed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), but other Republicans are more skeptical following inspector general Michael Horowitz’s December report on “at least 17” abuses in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, which relied heavily on FISA warrants.

House sources told National Review that “a long list” of Republicans support “significant reforms” to FISA before it is reauthorized.

“Given the tremendous abuses in 16-17, a clean reauthorization is totally unacceptable,” one House aide said.

Congressman Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) and Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) added their concerns on Wednesday, tweeting within four minutes of each other about how a reauthorization without reform was a mistake.

Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), an outspoken advocate for FISA reform, tweeted after the lunch that he had “made a long case against a simple reauthorization of the FISA program. Some are arguing the program needs no reform and that DOJ can put in place internal quality control mechanisms. That’s not good enough.”

Lee’s office told National Review in December that Republicans were planning “new legislation with major reforms to be introduced and hopefully incorporated into the program before it expires in March.”

Reached for comment Wednesday, Lee’s communications director Conn Carroll confirmed that the Utah Republican had held conversations with other FISA critics among the GOP.

“Waiting to see how the House mark up finishes today before we strategize further,” he told National Review in an email.

The House Judiciary Committee postponed a meeting Wednesday to review markups to its FISA reform bill, after Representative Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) proposed last-minute amendments to strengthen reforms — which senior House Democrats dismissed as “poison pills” that would doom the legislation due to a lack of bipartisan support.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.) told CNN Wednesday — before the delay — that he would not support a clean reauthorization of FISA, as his committee reviews mark-ups to legislation to renew the surveillance powers by its deadline.

A Senate Republican aide suggested to National Review that House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) was behind the stalling on Nadler’s bill.

“There was a decent reform bill that Nadler had that Schiff forced him to water down. No civil liberties group signed off on it. It is a Schiff wish list,” the aide said. “Lofgren has been perfectly transparent about wanting amendments, amendments that have strong bipartisan support. Which is why Schiff doesn’t want to vote on them.”

Conservative-libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks condemned the decision to delay the bill’s markup, saying in a statement that “the very idea that the Judiciary Committee might produce a bill that would address some of these problems was apparently too much for Chairman Schiff today.

Last week, Representatives Doug Collins (R., Ga.) and Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) — ranking members of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, respectively — sent a letter to Nadler urging serious reforms.

“The Democrats’ bill does not address the serious issues in our FISA system, as highlighted by Inspector General Horowitz. I’m not at all surprised that all Republicans, and apparently even some Democrats, agree,” Collins said in a statement after the news of the delay. “The status quo is unacceptable. We cannot reauthorize these counterterrorism provisions without instituting critical safeguards that protect the civil liberties of all Americans.”

The Trump administration remains divided over how best to approach FISA, which the president often criticizes due to its use in the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation into his 2016 campaign. Over the weekend, reports broke that the White House Domestic Policy Council was pushing for a serious overhaul of FISA, but faced opposition from the National Security Council.

“A lot will happen between now and March 15. We may do a placeholder and take it past March 15. We’ve got to get this right,” Senator John Kennedy (R., La.) told Politico.

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