GOP senator pushes for clean reauthorization of foreign intel law

GOP senator pushes for clean reauthorization of foreign intel law
© Greg Nash

Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Grassley offers DACA fix tied to tough enforcement measures Five things senators should ask Tom Cotton if he’s nominated to lead the CIA MORE (R-Ark.) on Monday advocated for a clean reauthorization of a provision of foreign intelligence law, but he acknowledged that the reauthorization could be jeopardized by controversy over alleged "unmasking" President Trump associates in intelligence reports.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — which allows for intelligence collection on foreign targets outside of the United States without a warrant — is up for reauthorization at the end of the year.

Speaking at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, Cotton pushed for a full and permanent reauthorization of Section 702, arguing that any additional restrictions would harm national security. 

“I believe Congress should reauthorize the program permanently as is, without any changes,” Cotton, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told an audience in Arlington, Va.

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“We all aim to strike the right balance between national security and civil liberties,” Cotton said. “I believe Section 702 strikes just the right balance as is. Any more restrictions would hamper our national security agencies’ ability to protect us.” 

Cotton announced that he plans to soon introduce a bill cleanly reauthorizing the provision.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates have argued that Section 702 should be restricted, particularly taking issue with the incidental collection on Americans who have contact with foreign targets of intelligence activities. Americans who are swept up in these intelligence activities are subject to rules that conceal their identities, unless an exception is made in order to understand the value of the intelligence.

The debate over foreign intelligence collection has been influenced by allegations that associates of President Trump were incidentally swept up in intelligence activities after the election. Bloomberg reported this month that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice asked that identities of Trump associates be “unmasked” in raw intelligence reports on several occasions, although multiple reports have since said that no evidence emerged that Rice acted illegally.

While Rice has insisted she did nothing wrong, Republicans have seized on the reports to suggest that officials in the Obama administration may have been politically motivated to “unmask” members of Trump’s transition or campaign who appeared in intelligence reports.

They have also connected the allegations to media leaks about intelligence on Trump associates, particularly Michael Flynn, who resigned from his post as national security adviser in February after reports he had mislead Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Still, it is unlikely that Flynn had his communications swept up under Section 702, with collection under a traditional FISA application more likely.

Cotton expressed concern that a clean reauthorization of Section 702 could face obstacles because of the controversy surrounding the program.   

“Along the same lines that Edward Snowden’s disclosures continue to reverberate, I do worry that potential misconduct by Obama administration officials might make it harder to reauthorize this very important program,” Cotton told The Hill. 

“That’s one reason why I think it’s important that the intelligence committees get to the bottom of it quickly and make as much of our conclusions public as possible so we don’t have this very important legislative debate disrupted by unproven allegations,” he said.

Cotton noted that, even if Rice's requests to “unmask” the names of Americans were appropriate, leaking the material to the media would be inappropriate and potentially illegal.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating the matter as part of its investigation into Russian election interference, which is also exploring whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Cotton told The Hill that the committee has sent letters to government officials and members of the Trump campaign asking them to preserve emails and documents.

“We’ve sent preservation letters to numerous people in both the government and from the Trump campaign,” Cotton said. “We’ve taken all the necessary and prudent steps to preserve evidence as necessary and we’re obviously furthest along in the first set of issues.”

Cotton said the committee has been focused on reviewing the raw intelligence that went into the intelligence community’s January assessment on Russian interference in the election.

While the leaders of the Senate investigation have made a show of bipartisanship, Yahoo News reported on Monday that the probe, like the House Intelligence Committee's separate investigation, has been stalled by partisan divisions.