With a controversial surveillance law about to expire, the House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on whether to protect the public’s Fourth Amendment rights to privacy or to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to violate those rights by continuing to conduct warrantless surveillance on its own citizens.
Congress’ effort to hastily renew the NSA’s warrantless spying authority—known as Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA)—failed last month after widespread opposition. Now, legislators are trying again ahead of the January 19 deadline when the law is now set to expire.
The bill up for consideration is being labeled by certain members of the House Intelligence Committee as “reform,” but offers no substantial changes. It doesn’t close the loophole that allows the US government to warrantlessly spy on its own citizens, and it actually codifies some of the law’s most problematic aspects.
If passed, the government would be empowered to continue its use of Section 702 to collect the emails and phone calls of Americans when communicating with people living abroad without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing. The new bill would impose warrant “requirements” only for FBI agents and only when launching a “formal” national security investigation. In short, the FBI could still read data collected under Section 702 about Americans uninhibited, and would only have to apply for a warrant if it decided later it wanted to launch an investigation, rendering the supposed requirement virtually meaningless.
Much like with the health care and tax debates, Republicans have kept the exact language of the bill they plan to force a vote on secret from the American public, making it hard for constituents to weigh in. However it’s quite likely, given that members of the GOP Freedom Caucus may vote against an extension of NSA spying powers, that Democrats will have the ability to kill the bill if it doesn’t have robust privacy protections in place.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has so far not signaled which way she will vote, but if she recommends a “no” vote to other Democrats, it could swing the entire vote. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has set up a call tool to tell Representative Pelosi to stand up for the Fourth Amendment. Call on your representatives to reject any reauthorization of the government’s surveillance authority that doesn’t include strong privacy protections.
In an attempt to stifle debate, intelligence community has failed to provide even a rough estimate of the number of Americans whose communications are swept up in surveillance that targets foreigners. As Senator Ron Wyden wrote earlier last year:
Congress and the American people deserve a fully informed debate about this reauthorization. And we can’t have that debate unless we know the impact of Section 702 on the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans.
The Trump Administration, which has drastically escalated its crackdown on leakers and indicated openness to prosecuting journalists, would be granted sweeping surveillance powers if FISA Section 702 is passed without substantial changes. Trump has gone to extreme lengths to target immigrants, promised to surveil Muslim Americans, and has been accused of using the Department of Justice to go after his political enemies.
A Trump Administration with such vast spying powers has worrying implications for civil liberties. Any representative who claims to defend those civil liberties should vote against the bill. Public efforts successfully postponed a vote on the similarly flawed bill in December, and it’s crucial we keep the pressure on Congress now with a vote expected this week.
Tell House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to stand up for our Fourth Amendment rights and call on your representatives to reject any reauthorization of the government’s surveillance authority that doesn’t include strong privacy protections.