Among the items on a busy Congressional agenda this week was a little-noticed vote on reauthorization and possible expansion of the legal authority for one of the biggest NSA surveillance operations ever authorized against U.S. citizens. An outcry from privacy advocates and a bipartisan group in Congress has, at least temporarily, stalled the extension.
Under Section 702 of the FISA Act, the National Security Agency, or NSA, is authorized to collect emails and other communication belonging to overseas surveillance targets from U.S. companies. The FISA Amendment Reauthorization Act of 2017 would have extended the program and expanded its reach, which was a problem for Libertarian-leaning Republicans and privacy-oriented Democrats in the House and Senate.
Under the reauthorization, the FBI would have new ability to access the NSA database and gather information about Americans who are mentioned, even incidentally, in communications collected by the NSA.
Karoun Demirjian, a reporter for the Washington Post, says Congress will pursue a short-term extension of the Section 702, so there’s no gap in surveillance authority.
“The problem is basically that no one in Congress is entirely comfortable with letting the government be able to look into this database of foreign surveillance information, to look at information on Americans that’s contained in there, without some restrictions,” Demirjian says.
Privacy advocates raised the alarm this week because they feared the proposed FISA reauthorization would also include the expanded authority for the FBI. Demirjian says the change in the proposed bill had to do with what’s called “about” collection.
“Right now, there’s basically a handshake agreement that the FBI is not supposed to go in and look for information about Americans in that database – just if there are any contacts to or from Americans with these foreign targets,” Demirjian says. “And they wanted to codify that into law. Everybody’s kind of on board with that in Congress.”
At issue in the new bill was a provision that would have allowed the agencies to restart collection after notifying Congress.
“That was sending up red flags,” Demirjian says, “because it basically goes against the momentum was in Congress…that there’s not going to be any more ‘about’ collections.”
The current authorization expires December 31, though some provisions will continue into next year.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.