House Judiciary signals reauthorization of NSA surveillance powers with privacy tweeks

House Judiciary signals reauthorization of NSA surveillance powers with privacy tweeks

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday generally agreed that a controversial surveillance measure was both necessary for renewal and in need of some reform. 

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Section 702 allows the National Security Agency to monitor the communications of foreign citizens outside of the United States.

While the intelligence community touts it as a vital component of its surveillance apparatus, critics note that United States citizens communicating with foreigners can also have data captured. 

“I believe when it comes to terrorists, we hunt them down and kill them. I don’t believe anyone on this committee has any problem with Section 702 in how it goes after foreign bad dudes in foreign nations,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).

“I think many of us have concerns when it comes to American citizens and how they incidentally get caught up in the surveillance.”

That information captured by Section 702 can be passed, stored, searched and used in prosecutions by the FBI, which concerned the committee members as a potential violation of Fourth Amendment rights. 

“I think that is illegal, a violation of the Constitution and an abuse of power by our government on Americans, whatever my opinion is worth,” said Rep. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeMounting GOP retirements threaten House majority House Judiciary chairman announces retirement GOP anxiety rises over ’18 midterms MORE (R-Texas). 

The panel turned a pair of hearings on Section 702 into a full-day affair, with a private morning hearing with intelligence officials lasting into the afternoon and the following public hearing interrupted by votes.  

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A running theme throughout the hearing was how difficult it is to make accurate assessments of the impact of 702 against Americans without data.

The Judiciary Committee, like the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday at the confirmation hearing of Director of National Intelligence-designate Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsNational counterterrorism chief to retire at the end of year Former intel chief Hayden: Think twice on a Trump job offer Counterintelligence needs reboot for 21st century MORE, made clear throughout the hearing that it had asked for an estimate of how many U.S. citizens were captured in 702 searches, though no information has been forthcoming. 

“The intelligence community has not so much as responded to our [inquiry] letter, let alone completed the project. I had hoped for better,” said ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.). 

The intelligence community argues it is difficult to tell the nationality of a person making a phone call or sending an email without considerable effort and violation of privacy. Critics have pushed back against that reasoning, pointing out that country codes in phone calls and internet addresses in emails can give a reasonable estimate with little intrusion or effort.