The House Judiciary Committee held the first meeting of the year Wednesday to address Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendments that are set to expire by the end of the year unless Congress takes action.
The impending deadline continues the debate on how to balance civil liberties with national security interests.
FISA provides the legal framework that allows the government to collect foreign intelligence information through physical searches, wiretapping, pen registers, and specified business records.
In 2008, Section 702, one of the key provisions of the FISA Amendments Act, established additional procedures for the government to follow in order to collect communications of people located outside the U.S. for foreign intelligence purposes.
Congress enacted the 2008 amendments after it was discovered that President George W. Bush had given the National Security Agency authority to intercept communications in and out of the U.S. from persons suspected of being linked to terrorist groups.
The amendments are set to expire Dec. 31, which would allow an administration to revert to the unchecked Bush-era practices. The Trump administration issued a statement Wednesday saying it wants the existing amendments reauthorized, while some on the panel are pushing for privacy-strengthening reforms.
For example, the amendments set up a new procedure for targeting non-U.S. citizens overseas without a court order. A court order is required, and further safeguards set up under the amendments, if U.S. foreign-intelligence agencies wish to target an American overseas.
Critics of the program believe it overboard and results in the collection of communications of U.S. citizens without following legal protections.
“Is 702 consistent with the Constitution? That’s the fundamental question,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, asked during the hearing.
There is some worry that those communications could potentially be used to prosecute Americans.
Ranking member Rep. John Conyers of Michigan is calling for a reform of the amendments, citing the possibility of a large amount of communications by American citizens being incidentally collected under 702.
Last year, Mr. Conyers sent a formal letter asking the intelligence community to give him the number of potential communications that could have been incidentally collected under Section 702.
The government has not yet provided that number to the committee.
“The idea of using this authority to collect a large amount of information about United States citizens without a warrant or individualized suspicion and then applying that information to purposes having nothing to do with counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism is in a word, wrong,” said Mr. Conyers.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman, said America’s intelligence community considers Section 702 to be the “most important tool in battling terrorism.”
“Strong and effective national security tools like Section 702 and civil liberties can and must coexist,” said Mr. Goodlatte.