Dozens of privacy and civil liberties organizations pressed the Obama administration on the scope of its surveillance powers on Thursday, refocusing their efforts ahead of a new protracted legislative battle.
The underlying law — Section 702 of the 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — isn’t scheduled to come up for renewal until the end of 2017.
But civil libertarians are already laying the groundwork for reform now, following a mixed record this year.
“It may seem early but it’s not,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and organizer of a letter sent on Thursday.
“The government has perpetuated a myth that Section 702 is narrowly targeted at foreign threats,” she added. “And we know that’s not the case, but we need the data in order to effectively rebut the myth.”
Civil liberties advocates such as Goitein won a key victory in May, when Congress passed legislation to kill the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. That bill, the USA Freedom Act, was signed into law almost exactly two years after the phone records program was first revealed in leaks from Edward Snowden.
“USA Freedom was two years in the making, and we are now two years out from the 702 reauthorization,” Goitein said on Thursday.
However, privacy advocated also suffered a setback this week when the Senate overwhelming passed a cybersecurity bill that critics warned would increase the NSA’s ability to gather Americans’ data.
Section 702, which includes the NSA’s controversial PRISM and “upstream” collection programs, is targeted at foreigners but allows the government to “incidentally” pick up Americans' emails and phone calls as well. Reform of the law has been a top priority of privacy advocates following their initial success at reigning in the NSA.
Last year, Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperAfghanistan disaster puts intelligence under scrutiny Domestic security is in disarray: We need a manager, now more than ever Will Biden provide strategic clarity or further ambiguity on Taiwan? MORE acknowledged that intelligence officials have used the law to search through Americans’ emails and phone calls without a warrant.
On Thursday, 32 organizations wrote to Clapper urging him to reveal exactly how many Americans’ communications are collected under surveillance authorized by the law.
“[I]t is unacceptable that the government itself has no idea how many Americans are caught up in an intelligence program ostensibly targeted at foreigners,” they wrote.
The intelligence community’s inspector general has previously said that identifying just how many Americans’ data was picked up would require so much work as to “impede the NSA’s mission.” Additionally, the inspector general claimed, a review “would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”
The groups on Thursday also asked for data about how many times the FBI has searched for Americans’ communications under the law and for policies that allow the government to use tips picked up from the covert surveillance to build legal cases against suspects.
Groups signing on to the letter included the Brennan Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation.
— A quote was corrected at 2:09 p.m.