Vote to Restrict Government Spying Authority Shows Changing Politics of National Security

By Brodey, Sam | MinnPost.com, January 15, 2018 | Go to article overview

Vote to Restrict Government Spying Authority Shows Changing Politics of National Security


Brodey, Sam, MinnPost.com


It’s not every day that Reps. Keith Ellison and Jason Lewis see eye to eye. But the two congressmen — arguably the most liberal and most conservative members of the Minnesota delegation, respectively — came together last week to oppose a reauthorization of a favorite tool of U.S. intelligence authorities, one that is now a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over security and privacy.

The House of Representatives moved last week to extend an authority known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits U.S. intelligence to spy on foreign nationals living abroad by collecting the communications they send across the web and by phone.

That authority was first granted by Congress in 2008, and while the extension passed smoothly last week out of the House of Representatives, there were far more “nay” votes against the policy than when it was first adopted. Ellison and Lewis were in good company: though 256 voted yes on the 702 bill, 164 lawmakers voted no — a group that included most of their Minnesota House colleagues. DFL Reps. Betty McCollum and Tim Walz, and GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, were in the dissenting column. (DFL Rep. Rick Nolan was not on hand to vote — he was back in Minnesota with his daughter, who is receiving treatment for lung cancer — but his office said he would have voted no, too.)

What brought together this disparate group of lawmakers was a shared concern over how U.S. authorities use the 702 authority, or abuse it: liberals and conservatives alike believe it can be used as a backdoor into unconstitutional snooping on U.S. citizens and legal residents.

The broad opposition to this obscure but important element of national security law shows how the politics of surveillance are changing — and more lawmakers than ever are finding reasons to oppose the status quo.

The 411 on 702

U.S. authorities ramped up their surveillance of foreign targets almost immediately after the September 11 terror attacks, whose 19 perpetrators all came from overseas. But under George W. Bush’s administration, the intelligence community lacked explicit legal authority to engage in the broad array of information and data-collecting techniques they were putting to use.

In response to mounting scrutiny, Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to include Section 702, which requires authorities to get approval from a federal court for the methods they use to collect information about surveillance targets, without needing specific warrants to search those targets’ communications. It also established limits to how authorities can use the information they obtain from those methods.

That vote, taken in 2008, passed the House with nearly 300 votes, and the Senate with 69 votes. Most Democrats voted no, but the measures received overwhelming support from Republicans, then the minority party in Congress. In the House, all but one Republican lawmaker voted to approve the authority.

In the years that followed, 702 became an indispensable tool for the U.S. intelligence community, whose leaders speak of it reverently — and defensively. They argue that the authority it provides — which permits them to surveil some 100,000 people — has enabled intelligence officials to collect life-saving information and stop acts of terrorism.

An example many point to is a plot the Federal Bureau of Investigation foiled in 2009, when an Afghan national living in the U.S. and under surveillance planned, and failed, to bomb the New York City subway. (The role of 702 in stopping this attack is disputed by critics of the National Security Agency, which conducts a vast share of this type of surveillance.)

As lawmakers debated the policy this week, former FBI Director James Comey summed up the perspective of the intelligence community, tweeting on Thursday that “thoughtful leaders on both sides of the aisle know FISA section 702 is a vital and carefully overseen tool to protect this country… Congress must reauthorize it. …

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