Critics lament as 126 House Democrats join forces with GOP to hand Trump 'terrifying' mass domestic spying powers
President Donald Trump. (AFP / SAUL LOEB)

Privacy advocates and civil liberties defenders are expressing outrage after the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday night voted down a bipartisan amendment designed to end, as one group put it, the U.S. government's "most egregious mass surveillance practices" first revealed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In a final vote of 253-175, it was 126 Democrats who joined with 127 Republicans to vote against an amendment introduced by Rep Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that would have closed loopholes in Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that critics charge has allowed the NSA to abuse warrantless surveillance capabilities and target the emails, text messages, and internet activity of U.S. citizens and residents. See the full roll call here.

Among the high-profile Democrats to vote against the bill was Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a frequent and outspoken critic of President Donald Trump.

"It's good to know that House Democrats like Adam Schiff are 'resisting' Trump by voting to ensure that he has limitless authority to conduct mass warrantless surveillance," said Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight for the Future, in a statement rebuking those Democrats who sided with the president and the Republicans in voting down the Amash-Lofgren amendment.

While House Democrats otherwise treat Trump as an existential threat who cannot be trusted on any matter, Greer and her group said it was bewildering to see a majority of the party leave such "terrifying" mass surveillance powers in the hands of the president and the intelligence agencies he largely controls.

"The Democrats who voted against this common sense amendment just threw immigrants, LGBTQ folks, activists, journalists, and political dissidents under the bus by voting to rubberstamp the Trump administration’s Orwellian domestic spying capabilities," said Greer, in a statement.

Not letting Republicans off the hook, however, she said the GOP should "be even more embarrassed" than the Democrats over their vote. House Republicans, added Greer, have "spent months complaining about the Obama administration’s abuses of FISA and then voted for the status quo when they had an actual opportunity to rein in Big Brother."

As Fight for the Future noted in a tweet, dozens of civil liberties groups had lobbied Congress to pass the Amash-Lofgren amendment ahead of the vote, sending a letter last week urging its passage.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which lobbied in favor of the amendment, the effort to rein in the powers contained in Section 702 was crucial to curtail the documented abuses by government agencies and the threat posed by unchecked mass spying. As Matthew Guariglia, an EFF policy analyst, explained in a Tuesday blog post:

Section 702 allows the government to collect and store the communications of foreign intelligence targets outside of the U.S if a significant purpose is to collect "foreign intelligence" information.  Although the law contains some protections—for example, a prohibition on knowingly collecting communications between two U.S. citizens on U.S. soil—we have learned that the program actually does sweep up billions of communications involving people not explicitly targeted, including Americans. For example, a 2014 report by the Washington Post that reviewed of a "large cache of intercepted conversations” provided by Edward Snowden revealed that 9 out of 10 account holders “were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else."

The Lofgren-Amash amendment would require the government to acknowledge the protections in the law and to explicitly promise not to engage in "about collection," the practice of collecting communications that merely mention a foreign intelligence target. About collection has been one of the most controversial aspects of Section 702 surveillance, and although the government ended this practice in 2017, it has consisted claimed the right to restart it.

While Fight for the Future vowed not stop fighting, and noted upcoming fights over domestic surveillance and mass spying, Greer lamented this failed opportunity.

"This amendment would have finally closed legal loopholes that the US government has abused to conduct sickening and pervasive monitoring and collection of the most intimate details of our lives," she said. "Congress should do their job by defending the constitution and enacting comprehensive legislation to ban mass government spying, outlaw use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement, and hold corporations accountable for collecting and misusing our data."