- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Top House Republicans and Democrats will join forces Thursday to demand changes to one of the country’s chief snooping laws, saying the government needs to do more to disclose Americans “unmasked” after their information is snared.

The discussion draft, which will be sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte and John Conyers Jr., the respective top Republican and Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, will also require American agents to ask a court for permission if they want to use information collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in a criminal investigation.

The bill is a blow to the spy agencies, which had been hoping for a full and permanent reauthorization of Section 702, which is due to expire at the end of this year.

Mr. Goodlatte and Mr. Conyers will instead call for a six-year renewal, to Sept. 30, 2023, with the new conditions attached.

Section 702 allows the government to collect information from foreign sources located outside the U.S. No American, and no person on U.S. soil, is to be targeted.

But if a foreign target is talking to an American, those communications can be collected — and in some cases the American can be “unmasked,” meaning their name is attached to communications.

That happened late last year with Michael Flynn, who at the time was a top security adviser to candidate Donald Trump. His communications with a Russian official were unmasked, then leaked, in a way that embarrassed Mr. Trump.

The new bill would require officials to document unmasking requests to ensure they are being made for legitimate purposes. It also would require the director of national intelligence to report unmasking to Congress.

Under the legislation, an agent could search information gathered by a 702 collection but would have to obtain a probable cause order from the FISA court to access or disseminate the information as part of a criminal investigation.

Searches designed to get at foreign intelligence information would not require a court order, but accessing or disseminating it would still need a supervisor’s approval.

The intelligence community would also have to report how many Americans are identified from 702 information, and how many of those are eventually unmasked.

Lawmakers have been asking for an estimate of the number of U.S. persons who have had their information incidentally collected through Section 702 for years, but intelligence officials have said it’s impossible to obtain a number.

The attorney general also would need to submit an annual report detailing the number of applications made for orders and the number of orders granting surveillance under their bill.

Last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates sent a letter to Congress saying 702 powers are the backbone of U.S. foreign intelligence efforts, and insisting the current law already has a “robust regime of oversight.”

They said the law helps them “collect vital information about international terrorists, cyber actors, individuals and entities engaged in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other important foreign intelligence targets located outside the United States.”

Civil liberties groups have called for major changes to the law before any reauthorization.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that the House draft is a start, but not enough.

“The bill would still allow the CIA, NSA, FBI and other agencies to search through emails, text messages and phone calls for information about people in the U.S. without a probable cause warrant from a judge,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the ACLU. “Those worried that current or future presidents will use Section 702 to spy on political opponents, surveil individuals based on false claims that their religion makes them a national security threat or chill freedom of speech should be concerned that these reforms do not go far enough.”

Top administration officials came to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on Section 702 and ask for renewal Wednesday.

Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, emerged from the meeting to say there’s still a concern in Congress about the use of the information for any purpose other than terrorism control.

“There’s a lot of safeguards in the existing law, but the general feeling in Congress is probably to reauthorize the program, but to find some additional safeguards,” Mr. Sherman said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide