Section 702 of FISA, for more than a decade a key government surveillance tool, may not be renewed as its expiration approaches. Under this law, government spy agencies are empowered to eavesdrop on communications of foreigners outside the United States. But, as is the norm now, mission-creep (or government-creep, as I like to refer to it) has allowed its authority to go off the rails.
For in this mass surveillance operation, American citizens were also swept up if they communicated with foreigners under US surveillance. The mass collection of information heretofore appeared only to be bothersome to civil libertarians and many Democrats. This situation, apparently, has changed due to the massive leaks emanating from intelligence agencies seemingly bent on undermining the nascent Trump administration. And Republicans are pushing back against the flood of leaks.
Taking it further, this should be alarming. If the highest echelons of government aren’t immune from abuses to their privacy, how can the average citizen possibly be protected? As a result, Republicans, typically staunch defenders of the surveillance, are vowing to let the law sunset now that they are suffering under the tsunami of intelligence leaks.
“We are not going to reauthorize these surveillance programs if the American people are not satisfied that their security is going to be safeguarded,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said recently. While this not so veiled threat might energize the Republican base, it may more likely be playing into Democrats hands, as they have mostly been opposed to the draconian provisions of the FISA law. Now, they have an ally in an angered GOP.
Republicans, usually rubber-stamps for any kind of surveillance measures (including Section 702), have been particularly piqued by the ousting og national security adviser Mike Flynn. Flynn was picked up by US intelligence officials when he spoke with Russian government officials after the election, but before the new Trump administration took office. But this is just the most visible of many examples of leaks which are damaging to the Trump administration.
President Trump has frequently, though without proof, alleged that the outgoing Obama administration targeted him to damage his transition to the Oval Office following the election. Thus, in the eyes of the GOP, the leaks were carried out for political purposes. They argue that the investigation into Russian ties with Trump, and alleged meddling in the election, are merely witch-hunts to deflect attention from the Obama team’s skulduggery. Hence, the Republican threat to block Section 702.
The law’s passage is on shaky grounds, anyway, regardless of the recent melee over leaks aimed at President Trump. Bi-partisan support will be needed – maybe now more than ever – because many Republicans are on the fence on this issue. Some, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), are more vocal in their dissent than others, which casts doubt over the law’s passage. Paul called Section 702 “a backdoor search of Americans” during a CBS interview in March.
Despite the fact that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, the extension of Section 702 has never been shakier, as politicians of all stripes, for perhaps disparate reasons, are aghast at the increasing scope of surveillance. Because ordinary American citizens are more vulnerable than ever, lawmakers in both parties have been demanding the intelligence agencies reveal how often US citizens are surveilled under the 702 provision.
Said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said,
“We need to get the number of law-abiding Americans swept up [in the 702 collections]. A lot of House conservatives are with me on this.”
Regardless of your stance on the kind of surveillance that Section 702 permits, and of mass surveillance in general, the potential expiration of Section 702 could imperil safety at a time when the entire world, it seems, is under attack from terrorists.