US Intelligence Chiefs Push for Permanent OK to Eavesdrop on Foreign Communications

Posted June 10, 2017

The committee held an open hearing to discuss Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) legislation with top intelligence officials, focusing on section 702 of the act outlining "Procedures for Targeting Certain Persons Outside the United States Other Than United States Persons".

Section 702, which allows the government to intercept the communications of foreign intelligence targets, is set to expire on December 31 unless it is reauthorized by Congress.

The administration officials - Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - will testify that Section 702 is an essential national security tool to stop terrorism, a view most of the intelligence committee agreed with.

Mark Warner, respectively, said in their opening statements that it was in the US' national security interests to authorize Section 702 intelligence collection.

Admiral Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, also said the FISA program was vital to gaining an understanding of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 USA presidential election.

Intelligence Director Coats said it was not feasible for the NSA to provide an estimate of the number of Americans whose communications are ensnared incidentally under Section 702. "We can not allow adversaries overseas to cloak themselves in the legal protections we extend to Americans".

It should go without saying: if the Intelligence Community is truly anxious about the privacy and civil liberties of ordinary Americans, officials will take the looming Section 702 sunset as an opportunity to give lawmakers the information they need to have an informed and meaningful debate about how government spying programs impact Americans' privacy. "Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, proposed a bill to permanently reauthorize Section 702 without modification". The identities of those Americans are normally masked, or redacted, however, before the intelligence reports are disseminated to anyone outside of the National Security Agency. A frustrated Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who has asked for such an estimate for several years, said Coats "went back on a pledge".

Privacy advocates panned the push to make Section 702 permanent, arguing that regular reviews of the law were necessary to conduct appropriate oversight and prevent potential abuses.

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.

Reuters reported in March that the Trump administration supported renewal of Section 702 without any changes, citing an unnamed White House official, but it was not clear whether it wanted the law made permanent.