Controversial spying program under review
Congress must deWASHINGTON cide by year’s end whether to overhaul a controversial surveillance program that collects the content of Americans’ emails, phone calls, text messages and other electronic communication without a warrant.
“This law is supposed to be a tool to fight terrorist threats overseas; instead it’s being used as an end-run around the Constitution,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, DOre., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wyden promised to put a hold on any bill that allows the government to continue spying on Americans without a search warrant.
The program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was approved by Congress in 2008 to increase the government’s ability to track and foil foreign terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Section 702 was designed to spy on foreign citizens living outside the USA, and it specifically bars the targeting of American citizens or anyone residing in the USA. Critics say the program sweeps up the electronic data of innocent Americans who may communicate with foreign nationals, even when those foreigners aren’t suspected of terrorist activity.
The government calls this “in- cidental surveillance,” and intelligence officials have refused to tell Congress how many unknowing Americans have had their personal data collected.
The law is set to expire at the end of December, leaving it to Congress to either renew the program as it is or make changes to strengthen privacy and constitutional protections. Lawmakers are not likely to let the law lapse.
Anti-terror law allows warrantless snooping on Americans
The House Judiciary Committee is working to come up with a bipartisan bill that would allow legitimate surveillance of foreigners overseas to continue while better protecting Americans’ civil liberties.
Critics say Section 702 is more dangerous to Americans’ civil liberties than the better-known Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which Congress voted in 2015 to rein in after its existence was disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
That program collected phone record metadata that revealed whom Americans called, when the calls were made and how long they lasted. It did not collect the content of conversations, but the Section 702 program does.
“The 702 program is about the actual data — your conversations, your photographs, your emails,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a former tech company executive, software developer and engineer who wants to stop the warrantless surveillance of Americans. “This is not just who you send it to, but what’s in it.”
Intelligence officials appealed to lawmakers to renew the program, which they said has helped stop terrorist plots without violating Americans’ privacy rights.
In one case, the CIA used intelligence gathered under Section 702 to uncover a photograph and
“This law is supposed to be a tool to fight terrorist threats overseas; instead it’s being used as an end-run around the Constitution.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D- Ore.
other details that enabled allies in an African nation to arrest two Islamic State militants connected to planning “a specific and immediate threat against U.S. personnel and interests,” according to joint testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June by National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
“To protect privacy and civil liberties, this program has operated under strict rules and been carefully overseen by all three branches of the government,” Coats testified.
One of the biggest concerns critics have is that information collected “incidentally” on U.S. citizens is stored by the NSA in databases that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies can search to build criminal cases against Americans.
From left, Andrew McCabe, Rod Rosenstein, Dan Coats and Michael Rogers testify before the Senate intelligence panel in June about Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.