Composite photo, Deseret News
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, have different opinions on a controversial government surveillance program.

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, vigorously defended a controversial government spying program Thursday that he believes is critical to protecting the U.S. against foreign threats.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is one of the most critical, if not the most critical, national security tools used by the intelligence community, he said.

The provision allows the National Security Agency to collect the communications of foreigners abroad without first obtaining an individual warrant, even if U.S. citizens are included in the exchanges.

“I’m deeply disturbed by the deception and misinformation that has been put forward by those opposing this bill. It is not bulk collection of information. It is not a program that targets Americans. It is about foreign terrorists on foreign soil and keeping the homeland safe," said Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Stewart voted in favor Thursday of a bill reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which passed the House 256-164. Utah Republican Reps. Mia Love and John Curtis also voted for the legislation, while Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, voted against it. The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has already threatened to filibuster the bill.

Sen. Mike Lee joined Paul and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, and Ron Wyden, of Oregon, last month to speak against renewing Section 702. They say government agencies use the law to wrongfully monitor, collect and search U.S. citizens' electronic communications.

Warrantless back door searches allowed under the program leave Americans vulnerable to "nefarious" treatment and exposure when the government itself gets hacked, which happens on a regular basis, Lee said at the time.

Lee's office would not say whether the senator would join Paul in a filibuster.

"Sen. Lee opposes reauthorizing any program that does not include adequate Fourth Amendment protections for the American people and the House bill does not include those protections," Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said Thursday.

Lee and Leahy in a joint press release Thursday said their proposed USA Liberty Act provides a sensible compromise the preserves the government’s ability to use the surveillance tool, while also protecting Americans’ privacy rights.

"Our bill makes clear that Americans need and deserve both security and protection of their privacy," the senators said.

Stewart said in a speech on the House floor the assertion that the program vacuums bulk data without regard for the intended target is simply false. He said it targets 106,000 people such as spies, terrorists and weapons dealers in a world with 7.5 billion people.

In addition, he said the bill contains provisions to protect Americans whose data is incidentally collected.

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"I am dismayed by the amount of disinformation being propagated by those who oppose section 702 for purely ideological reasons," Stewart said.

Curtis said the legislation finds the vital balance between national security and protecting privacy and civil liberties.

He said although the bill includes reforms to ensure that the privacy of Americans is protected, he's committed to working to reform other aspects of the surveillance act to further safeguard Americans’ constitutional rights.