Johnson shifts from FISA critic to champion as Speaker

The battle over the nation’s warrantless surveillance powers is highlighting the evolution of Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), a onetime critic of the foreign spy program who’s now fighting to usher its renewal through his warring GOP conference.

It’s a role that’s put Johnson at odds with both former President Trump and his former colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee, where like other GOP members he could be counted on to blast what they see as government overreach.

But as Speaker, Johnson has done a full 180, opposing a new warrant requirement for Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — and infuriating Judiciary members who feel that requirement is crucial for preventing Justice Department abuses.

“These were views that the Speaker deeply held, like, 20 minutes ago,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Wednesday shortly before leading an effort to tank a procedural vote that would have kicked off debate on the broader FISA reform bill.

Johnson isn’t disguising the change of tune, saying the reversal is a simple function of learning more about the program as Speaker and deciding it’s vital to national security — and that his earlier criticisms were off target.

“When I was a member of Judiciary, I saw all of the abuses of the FBI — there were terrible abuses, over and over and over,” Johnson told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday evening.

“And then when I became Speaker, I went to the SCIF and got the confidential briefing from sort of the other perspective on that, to understand the necessity of Section 702 of FISA and how important it is for national security. And it gave me a different perspective,” he continued, using an abbreviation for sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF).

“So I encourage all the members to go to the classified briefing and hear all that and see it so they can evaluate the situation for themselves. And I think some opinions have changed both ways, but that’s part of the process. You’ve got to be fully informed.”

The transition highlights not only the tough choices Johnson has been forced to make in his nascent tenure as Speaker, but also how a different perch — with greater access to classified information — can shift lawmaker positions on even explosive issues like the government’s warrantless surveillance program.

“When you become Speaker, you become one of the Gang of Eight,” House Intelligence Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said, referring to a group composed of the leaders of both chambers as well as their respective Intelligence committees, who get more detailed intelligence briefings than other members of Congress.

“And so you are dealing with some of the most significant national security threats to our nation, our intelligence concerning those threats, and the infrastructure and the laws under which our Intelligence Committee operates. And I think that certainly has informed his position.”

Section 702 of FISA allows the government to surveil only noncitizens located abroad. But in that process the government also intercepts incoming communications from Americans interacting with the foreigners being spied on.

Privacy hawks — including a band of Judiciary members — want the government to get a warrant before reviewing any information an American sent while engaging with a foreign target.

“The American people don’t want their liberties taken away … They want their Fourth Amendment liberties to be upheld,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a Freedom Caucus member who backs a warrant requirement.

But the intelligence community and their allies on the House Intelligence Committee argue that would gut the law — leaving law enforcement blind to information they may need to act on in real time.

“They want to impose a warrant requirement to do a search of a law-enforcement database. So that would be the equivalent of a police officer needing a warrant to run a license plate through a [Department of Transportation] database,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “It’s insane. It doesn’t work.”

They also say it’s not legally required — the Constitution offers no protections for noncitizens, and as in other cases where the government seizes communications, responses from those communicating with someone whose records have been lawfully obtained have no right to shield those interactions.

Johnson for the last several months has tried to bridge warring factions within the GOP — both the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee had urged him to back their own bill. The Judiciary package included a warrant requirement, while the Intelligence bill did not.

But a team he assembled to hash out differences between the two bills put out a product that largely aligned with the Intelligence bill.

And while Johnson cleared a path for a warrant requirement amendment to get a vote on the House floor, Judiciary members are furious they didn’t get votes on additional amendments. These prospective amendments include a provision to limit how the government could buy information on Americans from data brokers.

The whole lead-up prompted lawmakers like Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) to accuse Johnson of tipping the scales against his former Judiciary colleagues.

“What we ended up with was a bill that didn’t have the warrant protections in the bill. It was going to be forced to be added as an amendment. And then the Speaker of the House put his finger on the scale against the amendment. And that pretty much is the story,” Roy said.

While serving on the Judiciary Committee himself, Johnson was a frequent critic of the federal intelligence agencies — echoing others in accusing them of being weaponized against conservatives.

During a July meeting with FBI Director Christopher Wray, he accused the agency of “being used as a political tool by the Biden administration.”

“The American people have lost faith in the FBI,” he said. “All our constituents are demanding that we get this situation under control, and we have to do that. That is our responsibility. This is not a political party issue, sir. This is about whether the very system of justice in our country can be trusted any more.”

Still, in pitching his support for the FISA reauthorization, he criticized the agency anew, saying the reforms in the bill would “stop the abuse of politicized FBI queries.”

Johnson’s shift also puts him at odds with Trump, who has his own conflicting track record when it comes to FISA.

The former president weighed in Wednesday ahead of the House GOP conference meeting, writing on his social media site that they should “kill FISA” and suggesting the tool was used to spy on his campaign.

However, FISA 702 only deals with foreign surveillance, while Trump campaign aide Carter Page was spied on using a different section of the statute that deals with domestic surveillance.

And during his time in office, Trump signed into law the current FISA 702 statute, writing on Twitter at the time, “This is NOT the same FISA law that was so badly abused during the election.”

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