White House, intel chiefs want to make digital spying law permanent

Erica Roy
June 10, 2017

Even though much of the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday focused on conversations involving the director of national intelligence, the director of the National Security Agency and President Donald Trump, for at least part of the hearing, questions centered around the issue at hand - continuing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA.

The law allows USA intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on and collect vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside of the United States, but often incidentally scoops up communications of Americans.

The nation's top intelligence official told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russian Federation probe, according to officials.

The law, which is due to expire on December 31 unless Congress votes to reauthorize it, has been criticized by privacy advocates who argue it allows for the incidental collection of data belonging to millions of Americans without a warrant.

The push to make the law permanent may lead to a contentious debate over renewal of Section 702 in Congress, where lawmakers in both parties are deeply divided over whether to adopt transparency and oversight reforms. A day later, President Trump's Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert penned an editorial for The New York Times throwing the White House's support behind efforts to reinstate Section 702 permanently.

The statute, which grants the National Security Agency a considerable freedom in the collection of foreigners' digital communications, normally comes with a "sunset" clause, meaning that roughly every five years lawmakers need to reconsider its impact on privacy and civil liberties.

- "We have good reasons to be concerned about the impact of section 702 on the criminal justice system" Sarah St.Vincent writes in JustSecurity.org: "While this monitoring has considerable human rights implications for the foreigners who are targeted, it is likely that the dragnet is also capturing large numbers of USA persons" communications.

Towards the end of today's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with a number of intelligence agency chiefs, Sen. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked Coats.

But the move to support the legislative effort was spurned as "out of touch" by the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued that despite the government's assertions that Americans are not directly targeted, that an unknown number of U.S. citizens - who are constitutionally protected from domestic spying - are caught up in the NSA's surveillance dragnet.

Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the sweeping nature of 702 surveillance, prompting outrage internationally and embarrassing some US technology firms shown to be involved in a program known as Prism.

Critics have called the process under which the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies can query the pool of data collected for USA information a "backdoor search loophole" that evades traditional warrant requirements.

Making the law permanent without changes would preclude codifying that change.

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