House Republicans are planning to renew a controversial surveillance policy while expanding the government’s ability to spy on Americans without a warrant, the Intercept reported Tuesday.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the basis for a number of surveillance programs, was enacted during the George W. Bush era and expires later this month. It allows government officials to spy on Americans’ transnational communications without a warrant as long as the “targets” aren’t American citizens. Republicans are rushing to pass legislation that would renew it through 2023.
That legislation purports to limit how Section 702 data can be used by federal authorities. Right now, no guidelines are specified; the NSA shares Americans’ information with the FBI as part of a legal loophole. But critics say that writing parameters into law — specifically, a number of big exceptions — actually makes it easier for the government to spy on citizens.
Privacy advocates have pressed for a requirement that the FBI get a court order to search Americans’ communications. The Republicans’ bill would do that, but it also specifies exceptions in which a warrant isn’t necessary: When there is a threat to national security, “life or other bodily harm.”
Daniel Schuman, policy director for the digital-rights organization Demand Progress, says that would essentially codify illegal backdoor searches. “The Intelligence Committee’s bill disregards the Constitution and common sense by granting the government the authority to search Americans’ communications without first obtaining a warrant,” Schuman told the Intercept. “Not only does this turn the purpose of the foreign surveillance law on its head, transforming it into a domestic surveillance tool, but it places activists, minorities, and everyone else at the mercy of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, who have made clear their disregard for legal constraints and democratic norms.”
The bill also addresses another privacy issue while simultaneously subverting it: Government agencies were recently ordered to stop scanning Americans’ communications for identifying terms related to a subject of interest, like an email address. The bill writes that prohibition into law but would also allow agencies to resume the searches as long as they notified Congress and the NSA.
The bill could come up for a vote as soon as Thursday.