Senators try to reform law that allows U.S. agencies to surveil citizens

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced the USA Rights Act to limit surveillance of Americans' communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is set to expire Dec. 31, 2017, and the debate to reauthorize it is reaching a fevered pitch, including a plea from former spy chiefs to reauthorize it, a secret vote behind closed doors on a draft bill, and the introduction of a bill by a group of privacy-conscious senators to majorly reform Section 702.

Yesterday, a group of 15 former spy chiefs and national security officials released a letter urging Congress to renew Section 702. They claimed 702 is “extraordinarily effective” and “has strong oversight and controls to ensure that the privacy and civil rights of Americans are protected.” The letter was signed by the likes of former NSA Chief Keith Alexander, former CIA Director John Brennan, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper, and former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden.

A draft bill by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to reauthorize Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act would extend the authorization through 2025. According to the draft version, for the next eight year, Americans’ communications that are “incidentally” collected while hoovering up the communications of foreigners would be subject to “backdoor” searches without a warrant by the FBI and could be used against them in court. It is to be debated today in a closed session.

In a letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged the committee not to debate the controversial surveillance law behind closed doors. He wrote, “This legislation will have enormous impact on the security, liberty, and constitutional rights of the American people. The public has therefore taken a keen interest in the outcome of this mark-up and in specific proposed reforms to Section 702.”

Section 702 “has not kept up with the times,” Wyden told VICE News. “Particularly given that telecommunications today are globally connected. It’s not like they all just stop at one nation’s borders. It’s important that there be fresh policies to ensure that when we do target a serious overseas national security threat, that the government doesn’t end-run the Constitution.”

In fact, a bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Wyden and Rand Paul (R-K.Y.), introduced a bill to reform Section 702. Reuters reported that the bill “would require a warrant for queries of data belonging to any American” collected under 702.

The USA Rights Act

The USA Rights Act would end backdoor searches and end the reverse targeting of Americans’ communications by requiring a warrant “when a significant purpose of targeting foreigners is to collect the communications of Americans.”

Additionally, the USA Rights Act would “permanently” ban “about” collection — stop the government “from collecting communications that are not to or from a foreign target, but merely about a foreign target and can be entirely between Americans.”

The collection of domestic communications and the misuse of information on Americans would be prohibited. “This bill clarifies that it should not authorize the collection of communications known to be entirely domestic.”

The bill also “prohibits the use of information on Americans collected under Section 702, except for foreign intelligence and crimes directly related to national security, such as terrorism and espionage.”

In addition, the bill calls for strengthening oversight by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the FISA court, as well as “external” oversight. The latter establishes “standing” to allow “outside plaintiffs to challenge the constitutionality of this authority.”

The USA Rights Act addresses improved transparency by calling for the “release of key FISC opinions and data necessary for the public’s understanding of Section 702.”

Lastly, it calls for congressional reauthorization in four years.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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