The nation’s intelligence chiefs sent a letter to Congress this week calling for a “speedy enactment” of legislation to reauthorize broad foreign spying powers that often impact American citizens, too.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats asked congressional leaders on Monday for a clean extension of the spying provision. Most notably, the top officials requested that the reauthorization be permanent.
At the end of the year, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act sunsets. The law, intended to target individuals abroad, was the subject of disclosures by. Edward Snowden. In 2013, the former NSA contractor revealed that thousands of Americans routinely have their online data collected into surveillance databases as a byproduct of foreign collection.
In their letter, Sessions and Coates attempted to preempt any forthcoming efforts to rein in the surveillance provision.
“We look forward to working with you to ensure the speedy enactment of legislation,“ they wrote, adding that the process should be accomplished “without amendment beyond removing the sunset provision, to avoid any interruption in our use of these authorities to protect the American people.”
The looming termination of Section 702 marks the first time that Congress has been forced to debate the law since Snowden first made his disclosures in 2013.
Two years ago, Congressional reformers curtailed Section 215 of the Patriot Act, just before it expired. Snowden had also revealed details of surveillance authorized the law, which is used to collect and store the telephony metadata of countless American citizens.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), leading voices for reform in that debate, are also advocates of substantially altering Section 702 before it is reauthorized.
Through 702, the NSA administers its PRISM program, which relies on the cooperation of internet companies to funnel requested data to intelligence agencies. Also under 702, US spies engage in “upstream” collection, involving the extraction of data right off of internet cables around the world.
Such tactics, however, invariably result in Americans being spied on, too, especially those who are in regular contact with individuals overseas.
Reformers are bemoaning this fact, in calling for new limits on 702 collection. They also would like to impose a warrant requirement before authorities can search NSA databases for incidentally-collected information on American citizens.
To better understand the breadth of incidental collection before reauthorizing the law, Sen. Wyden has demanded the intelligence community turn over data on just how many Americans do get sucked up in the NSA’s collection vacuums.
But during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in June, Director Coates claimed to Wyden that it would be “infeasible to generate an exact, accurate, meaningful, and responsive methodology that can count how often a U.S. person’s communications may be incidentally collected under Section 702.”
Regardless of the pending congressional debate, the intelligence community has preemptively taken steps to limit some 702 collection. In April it was reported that the NSA would wind down “about” collection—a practice of collecting email traffic that contained information about a foreign target. The agency said it would limit collection to messages to and from the target.
The change was forced by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which is a top secret legal body that reviews and approves of agency spying programs.