WASHINGTON — The House will vote Thursday on whether to rein in a surveillance program that collects the content of Americans’ email, text messages, photos and other electronic communication without a warrant.
The program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was approved by Congress in 2008 to increase the government’s ability to track and thwart foreign terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
It was designed to spy on foreign citizens living outside the U.S. and specifically bars the targeting of American citizens or anyone residing in the U.S. But critics say the program also sweeps up the electronic data of innocent Americans who may be communicating with foreign nationals, even when those foreigners aren’t suspected of terrorist activity.
The program is set to expire on Jan. 19 unless Congress acts.
On Thursday, the House will vote on two competing proposals: one by the House Intelligence Committee that is supported by intelligence agencies and one by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that is supported by civil liberties groups.
The latter, by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., would require federal agents to get warrants before searching through Americans’ data that is collected when the U.S. government spies on foreigners abroad.
The government calls this “incidental surveillance,” and intelligence officials have so far refused to tell Congress how many unknowing Americans have had their personal communications collected under the program.
Civil liberties groups fear that the government can use that data to go after Americans for crimes such as tax evasion or minor drug offenses that have nothing to do with terrorism.
“We think that is unconstitutional, hugely problematic, and we’re here to defend the rights of the American people,” Amash said at a press conference Wednesday. Amash and Lofgren have more than 40 bipartisan co-sponsors for their bill, which is called the USA Rights Act.
A competing bill by Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., would restrict the use of data collected under Section 702 in some criminal prosecutions of U.S. citizens.
The bill also would temporarily stop federal agents from collecting communications that mention a surveillance target — but aren’t to or from that target — until the Intelligence Community presents Congress with new procedures for gathering information.
Nunes said his bill strengthens privacy protections “without hindering the ability of our intelligence professionals to monitor terror suspects, analyze collected data, and keep us safe.”
But a coalition of 44 diverse groups from the liberal ACLU to the conservative FreedomWorks oppose Nunes’ bill and support the Amash-Lofgren legislation. They argue that restrictions on the use of Americans’ data in the Nunes bill are so narrow and allow so many exceptions that they’re virtually meaningless.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus also opposes the Nunes bill, which is supported by most House and Senate GOP leaders.
“A vote for this (Nunes) bill is a vote against the Fourth Amendment,” said Jason Pye, FreedomWorks’ vice president of legislative affairs. “We strongly urge the House to defeat it.”
Intelligence officials have appealed to lawmakers to renew the existing 702 program, which they say has been crucial in stopping terrorist plots against the U.S.
In one case, the CIA used intelligence gathered under Section 702 to uncover a photograph and other details that enabled allies in an African nation to arrest two Islamic State militants connected to planning “a specific and immediate threat against U.S. personnel and interests,” according to joint testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June by National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe.
The law also has been credited by intelligence officials with foiling terrorist plots to bomb the New York City subway system and the New York Stock Exchange.
Critics of the law say that U.S. intelligence agencies can still go after foreign terrorists while protecting Americans’ basic rights.
“Politicians who support broad, unchecked government surveillance authorities are once again rushing to approve a sweeping program at the expense of Americans’ personal liberty and constitutional rights,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday in an op-ed.
GOP leaders decided to bring the Nunes bill to the floor rather than legislation passed by the House Judiciary Committee that supporters say had stronger privacy provisions.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the Nunes bill is so “deeply flawed” that it jeopardizes the renewal of the anti-terrorism law altogether.
“The new warrant requirement in this…
Authored by Sophie Ryan