It’s the NSA’s most cherished mass-surveillance law, albeit one civil libertarians consider dubiously constitutional. And the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee helped jeopardize its renewal, The Daily Beast has learned—by resurrecting a pseudo-scandal of his own invention.
In recent months, congressional negotiators have been working on a bill codifying an umbrella of mass-surveillance activities known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The authorization for those activities is due to expire in a matter of days.
But Chairman Devin Nunes threw a monkey wrench into the process, by initially pushing to include in the bill an unrelated a provision on so-called unmasking, the process that intelligence agencies use to reveal the names of U.S. persons who may be involved in crimes like spying.
(Last year, as the Trump-Russia probe began to heat up, Nunes led a sideshow investigationinto allegations that Obama administration officials improperly “unmasked” the names of Trump campaign staffers.)
Nunes’ effort played a role—though a minor one—in slowing down negotiations. It was a major departure from politics as usual for the chair of the powerful House Intelligence Committee.
Nunes was ultimately forced to strip the provision, which was far from the only hurdle the Section 702 reauthorization had to clear. What distinguished it, multiple Hill and intelligence sources told The Daily Beast, was that it was the only unforced error in the process—the result of Nunes’ effort to resurrect a controversy members of his own party have dismissed.
Reauthorizing the program is the top legislative priority of the Justice Department, an official there told The Daily Beast. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand to make the reauthorization fight her top priority.