The House Intelligence Committee unveiled a series of proposals to reform a key surveillance tool that has been credited with preventing terrorist attacks on US soil and has been accused of being a way to spy on American citizens.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the US government to monitor specified foreign nationals outside the country without first obtaining a warrant to do so.
The 73-page report prepared by Republicans on the committee’s bipartisan Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act working group was chaired by Rep. Darin LaHood, Republican of Illinois. He defends Section 702, which was added to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008, as an important part of America’s defense in the wake of September 11, 2001.
“[I]“It is difficult to find an adjective that adequately describes a tool that has done so much to protect the lives and liberty of Americans,” the report said. “We are unable to count the number of lives it has saved. It is noteworthy that there has not been another 9/11 since the inception of Section 702, despite the continuing threat of terrorism.
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However, the report also acknowledges that “Section 702 has a number of issues that require significant reform — from the need for increased penalties, compliance, and oversight, to inquiry into violations by the FBI.”
Section 702 is set to expire at the end of this year, and it already faces an uphill battle for renewal.
Critics accused the program of being excessive in scope and open to abuse. Members of Congress from both the far right and the left have claimed that it violates Americans’ civil liberties, specifically if the FBI conducts warrantless surveillance on communications between Americans and foreign nationals.
Allies of former President Trump, including Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, have alleged that the software was used to improperly spy on Trump’s 2016 campaign, including former aide Carter Page.
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However, Friday’s report sought to refute these accusations. Lawmakers objected to the idea that Section 702 allows the intelligence community to access all of a US citizen’s correspondence if they communicate with a foreign national.
“If a US person communicates with a 702 target, only specific communications to which the foreign target is involved will be collected – this is referred to as ‘incidental collection.’ The government can never target US persons whose communications are incidentally collected under Section 702.”
The report also describes Section 702 as “singular and highly limited” for aliens “who possess or transmit certain types of foreign intelligence information.”
Additionally, while lawmakers acknowledge that the FBI violations occurred during the FBI’s 2016 surveillance of Page and the Trump campaign, they maintain that those were separate from Section 702.
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Among the specific reforms to the FISA tool advanced by the House Republicans’ report were proposals to significantly limit the number of FBI employees who can authorize specific cases to use Section 702, and to strengthen authorization requirements for certain surveillance cases.
Lawmakers also proposed barring the FBI from obtaining Section 702 information that does not specifically relate to a specific, existing national security issue.
Details on proposed increased penalties for abuse of FISA and Section 702 are also included.
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They have sought to give Congress greater oversight of the FISA courts as well, including allowing members of Congress to attend hearings as well as requiring transcripts of court hearings to be made available to lawmakers.
The report also included ways to expand Section 702 for what lawmakers say is a more effective use — such as “expanding the NSA’s ability to target international drug trafficking operations, including those that distribute fentanyl and precursor chemicals, by including drug control in the definition of drugs.” Foreign intelligence.