DNI confirmation offers preview of surveillance debate

DNI confirmation offers preview of surveillance debate
© Greg Nash

Director of National Security nominee Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race Cyber preparedness could save America's 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' MORE faced questions about a controversial surveillance law up for reauthorization this year during his Tuesday confirmation hearing — a taste of a debate that would continue on his watch. 

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives U.S. intelligence agencies the ability to intercept the communications of non-U.S.-citizens when outside the United States.

Supporters, including Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas), claim it is an irreplaceable intelligence gathering tool. Detractors, including Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats scramble to reach deal on taxes Pelosi open to scrapping key components in spending package Under pressure, Democrats cut back spending MORE (D-Ore.) note that the interconnected nature of international telecommunications makes it difficult to completely filter out U.S. citizens from the data collection. 

Both Wyden and Cornyn sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which hosted Coats for the hearing. 

The former Indiana senator described the program as providing a “significant amount of intelligence,” but recognized that his role was to ensure the intelligence community did “everything we can to make sure that all of those private rights are secure.”

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It is unclear exactly how big a problem capturing Americans in 702 surveillance is; the NSA has never provided even the Intelligence Committee with those statistics despite the panel requesting them for a number of years. 

Wyden pushed Coats, himself a former Intelligence Committee member, to commit to providing that data. 

“I am going to do everything I can to work with [NSA Director] Admiral [Mike] Rogers to get that number,” said Coats.

“I've been told it's an extremely complex problem for a number of reasons. As I've said, without a classification I don't know what all those reasons are.”

Wyden asked Coats to provide updates every 30 days until he could provide statistics. 

“We want to make sure you have all of the information you need to make whatever decisions congress decides to make,” said Coats. 

Later, Cornyn noted that FBI Director James Comey had “referred to 702 as the ‘crown jewels of the intelligence community.’”

Coats said he agreed with that statement and “the entire community agrees with that.”

Cornyn asked Coats to confirm that safeguards existed to minimize improper collection, which Coats did before saying he appreciated the importance of minimizing wrongly surveilling Americans. 

“We cherish our private rights that are constitutionally provided to us. We want to do everything we can to make sure that all of those private rights are secure,” said Coats. 

“But we also know that the constitution requires us to provide for the common defense. And we are under attack from a number of sources — whether it's through cyber or whether it's through a number of other ways, the United States is vulnerable to attack.”

Section 702 is currently set to expire in December.