FISA has long faced criticism from privacy and civil liberties groups, who say communications of ordinary Americans can easily be swept up in the spying.
The U.S. attorney general and the director of national intelligence on Monday urged Congress to permanently reauthorize Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before it expires, preserving intelligence agencies’ authority to collect information on foreigners outside the United States.
The letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats urged the majority and minority leaders of both houses to permanently reauthorize Title VII of FISA.
Title VII, granting intelligence agencies permission to collect targeted data, sunsets on Dec. 31. Section 702 of Title VII allows U.S. agencies to collect “significant foreign intelligence that is vital to protect the nation against international terrorism and other threats.”
Section 702 grants the U.S. government permission to spy on foreign targets that are “reasonably believed” to be outside of the United States.
The Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence have supported reauthorization each time it comes up for renewal. A decision to make the authorization permanent, however, is often a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats.
FISA has long faced criticism from privacy and civil liberties groups. Those groups, such as the ACLU, say that despite the assurance of monitoring by all three branches of government, communications of ordinary Americans can easily be swept up in the spying if a person is communicating with a target central to an investigation.
Sessions and Coats promised “extensive oversight reviews of Section 702 activities,” saying: “Title VII requires us to report to Congress on implementation and compliance twice a year,” and that the law requires compliance with the Fourth Amendment.
“In addition, as demonstrated in numerous declassified court opinions and other materials, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court exercises rigorous independent oversight of activities conducted pursuant to Section 702 to ensure that incidents of non-compliance are addressed through remedial action,” the letter stated.
Declarations of oversight, accountability and review are often a flash point for debate on Section 702. Chiefly, and somewhat ironically, a glaring omission by the intelligence community drives much of the criticism of congressional maneuvers to grant permanent reauthorization.
In May 2016, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a tense hearing with members of the intelligence community and other civil rights groups, including the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Not a single expert called to testify was able to provide the committee with the number of Americans who had been or may be spied on incidentally under the program.
In another hearing with the committee more than a year later, despite earlier promises to provide hard information, senators were no closer to finding an answer to the question.
The June 2017 hearing featured a particularly terse exchange between Sen. Lindsay Graham, R.-S.C., and Bradley Brooker, acting general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Under Section 702 intelligence activities, Graham asked to know whether he, as a U.S. senator, was entitled to know whether intelligence agencies monitored conversations he may have had with a foreign leader abroad, and if someone made a formal request, could it be reported?
Brooker dodged Graham’s questions for several minutes, first saying his request was too broad before finally telling him that if he was so reported, he would be informed through proper channels.
Equally unsatisfied, Sen. Dick Durbin, D.-Ill. lamented during the June hearing: “We have given you more and more authority. And all we’re asking is, how carefully are you using it?”
Sessions and Coats did not address the question in the Monday letter. They asked for permanent reauthorization, “without amendment beyond removing the sunset provision, to avoid any interruption in our use of these authorities to protect the American people.”
Read the letter by Sessions & Coats urging Congress to reauthorize Title VII:
Top photo | Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to members of law enforcement Friday, April 28, 2017, in Central Islip, N.Y. Sessions discussed the street gang that’s gripping the suburban area. (AP/Frank Franklin II)