Efforts to renew a controversial warrantless internet surveillance program have hit another snag in Congress, with the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee now claiming the bill would be dead on arrival.
Congress is struggling to reauthorize Section 702, an intelligence-gathering program enacted under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which is set to sunset on December 31st. US intelligence chiefs say the program is vital to national defense and any lapse in its renewal would compromise the government’s ability to surveil terrorists, malicious cyber actors, and other intelligence targets abroad.
Intended only to target individuals who live outside the United States, Section 702 is also known to suck up vast quantities of information on Americans—data that is collected and stored by the government without a warrant.
Privacy advocates critical of the program have insisted on reforms that would require at least the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—America’s top domestic law enforcement agency—to get a warrant before accessing the communications of US citizens.
The House was set to vote soon on a reauthorization bill that would have extended the program by four years, but word spread by mid-afternoon that it was frozen. Amid other impediments Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rand Paul of Kentucky had publicly vowed to filibuster any version of the bill allowing for such a lengthy extension.
Gizmodo heard from a Senate aide Wednesday that both Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee had opposed the bill, and that a 30-day extension was a likely.
The committee had previously advanced Section 702 with a provision that required the FBI to seek a court order before reviewing data US citizens. (The warrant requirement extends to criminal cases but not counterintelligence investigations.)
Although the the enhanced warrant requirements were roundly supported, Democrats rallied against the bill, opposed to an unrelated provision they argued was motivated by politics.
Nunes, a close ally of the White House, had sought to amend the program’s “unmasking” procedures, which he’s repeatedly claimed were abused by the Obama administration to spy on members of the Trump transition team last year. The allegation, for which Nunes has been unable to produce proof, is widely considered a transparent attempt to—somehow—justify President Donald Trump’s false claim that his private office was bugged.
The identities of Americans swept up in foreign surveillance are said to be “masked” when redacted in classified intelligence briefs generated for the White House, the president’s national security council, and other staffers credentialed to view the classified reports. Officials who wish to view the names of Americans can request that the names be “unmasked” if they believe it’s necessary to understand the context of a key piece of intelligence, or if the names are already public knowledge.
Such requests can only be approved by a select group high-ranking intelligence officials, and the circulation of “unmasked” reports is said to be tightly controlled.
Trump officials recently argued that Section 702 may not actually expire at the end of the year and instead remain active well into spring.
Due to a series of extensions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during the last renewal effort, the program wasn’t actually certified until April 26, 2017. The delay was caused by revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been collecting communications between Americans who merely mentioned foreign targets in conversation—what the agency referred to as “inadvertent compliance incidents.”
The argument that Section 702 may continue beyond December 31st hasn’t received many complaints, either because the reasoning is sound or because lawmakers seeking additional reforms welcome the additional time to debate.