Intelligence Oversight Tries Again With Zero-Reform Section 702 Bill, Criticizes Reform Efforts As Threats To Security
from the tireless-in-their-unquestioning-defense-of-the-agencies-they-'oversee' dept
The Congressional showdown on Section 702 reforms/renewal continues to generate little actual debate or reform — but plenty of bad proposals. Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have decided there should be a renewal — preferably an extended one — with zero actual reform.
Members of the House offered up some tepid reforms in the USA Liberty Act, only to find this offering blocked by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), which offered a zero-reform package at the last minute. Fortunately, no one was able to tack a lousy non-reform bill to the tailend of the annual budget bill, thereby dodging reform discussions and giving the NSA a surveillance blank check for the next 5-10 years.
Having been stiff-armed for a few weeks, the HPSCI has put together another Section 702 “reform” bill that does nothing to change the status quo and actually has the possibility of making things worse.
Sharon Franklin discusses the many, many problems with the House Committee bill at Just Security. What the committee offers up as reforms is language that can (and will) be read as allowing the NSA (and other agencies) to conduct themselves as they have for years — this time with the explicit statutory authority granted to them by their supposed oversight.
Proponents of the Intelligence Committee’s bill contend that it presents a compromise approach to addressing both of these privacy risks, and that recent modifications to the bill address the concerns of privacy advocates. In reality, the bill includes no meaningful reform on either issue – or any other real reforms to Section 702. Instead, the Intelligence Committee’s bill would codify these two practices and risk expanding the government’s surveillance authority.
Codification would include the NSA’s abandoned “about” email collection. The NSA voluntarily ditched this program because it couldn’t stop collecting US persons’ communications with this untargeted collection. This bill would allow the NSA to turn the collection back on, provided no introduced legislation specifically demanding the permanent shutdown of this collection method within 30 days of the NSA’s notice. Worse, it would possibly allow the NSA to expand the scope of an already vaguely-targeted collection.
First, it could be interpreted by the government to permit unintentional “about” collection, such as where the Intelligence Community knows a certain technique results in “about” collection, but since that technique is not specifically intended to collect “about” communications, it engages in that collection nonetheless. Second, because the bill defines an “abouts communication” as “a communication that contains a reference to, but is not to or from, a target,” there is a risk that the bill could be interpreted to allow the government to collect communications that merely reference a target, such as mentioning a target’s name. Currently, the government may only collect communications that include a target’s “selector,” such as a target’s email or phone number.
The bill would also leave the backdoor search loophole wide open. The FBI (and other agencies) query NSA collections for information not necessarily related to national security investigations through this backdoor search, allowing them to use ostensibly foreign-facing collections for domestic policework. The bill does add a warrant requirement for these sorts of non-national-security-related searches, but this would only apply to “predicated investigations.” This would allow the FBI to make use of NSA databases in other forms of investigations, including preliminary investigations — all of which are based on less probable cause than “predicated” investigations. In other words, the FBI would be required to get a warrant during the final stages of a criminal investigation but need nothing to engage in fishing expeditions using NSA collections.
The HPSCI is also on the attack, trying to prevent other reform legislation from gaining supporters. It has gone so far as to portray support for competing bills containing actual reforms as threats to national security. Ron Wyden’s office has issued a debunking of the HPSCI’s outlandish claims.
HPSCI Majority allegation: USA RIGHTS will recreate a pre-9/11 “wall” preventing the Intelligence Community and law enforcement from sharing terrorism information.
Fact: Nothing in the USA RIGHTS Act prevents sharing of terrorism information.
HPSCI Majority allegation: USA RIGHTS prevents the IC from “uncovering plots against the United States and saving potential hostages via limitations on the ability to conduct U.S. person queries…”
Fact: USA RIGHTS, which requires a warrant for U.S. person searches of 702 data, includes an exception to rescue hostages, as well as an emergency provision that allows the government to search first and seek a warrant later. In addition, the government has other FISA tools, such as Section 215, that would allow it to swiftly “connect the dots” between suspects and terrorists without a probable cause warrant.
HPSCI Majority allegation: USA RIGHTS limits the government’s ability to obtain terrorism information by “unnecessarily restricting when the Government may ask for technical assistance from electronic communication service providers.”
Fact: Recent statements from the government indicate that it interprets Section 702 to allow it to direct electronic communication service providers to alter encryption. Even supporters of government-mandated weakening of strong encryption have argued for court orders. USA RIGHTS merely requires that the FISA Court oversee any such directives and ensures that those directives are tailored to the surveillance at issue.
HPSCI Majority allegation: USA RIGHTS would prevent NSA from “understanding foreign threat networks by permanently ending NSA’s ‘abouts’ collection.”
Fact: The “abouts” collection, which could include communications to and from innocent Americans on whom there is no suspicion, was suspended by the government due to significant compliance problems. If the government wishes to resume the “abouts” collection, it can always seek those authorities from Congress.
HPSCI Majority allegation: USA RIGHTS allows terrorists and spies to sue the U.S. government.
Fact: It is a basic tenet of the rule of law that surveillance authorities can be challenged in court. USA RIGHTS merely ensures that the government cannot abuse the secrecy of Section 702 to keep it from ever being challenged by anyone.
This is only a small part of the many claims the HPSCI has made in hopes of heading off any real challenge to its zero-reform Section 702 legislation. It’s pretty sickening this is coming from legislators charged with subjecting surveillance efforts to intense scrutiny. The HPSCI has never held up any of the NSA’s dubious claims as examples of untrustworthy behavior or as a threat to Americans’ privacy. Instead, it focuses its attention on those who won’t grant the NSA a pass it hasn’t earned.
Either way, this issue is coming to a head today. House leadership tried to “appease” those who actually support the 4th Amendment by allowing just one amendment to be voted on — good amendment by Reps. Justin Amash and Zoe Lofgren. House leadership apparently expects the amendment to fail, and then their awful bill to squeak across the finish line. In response, there’s been a pretty frantic effort on both sides to garner support — leading to the HSPCI’s misleading attacks on the amendment.
If enough Reps in the House actually grasp what’s at stake, and vote for the Amash/Lofgren amendment, it would be a pretty big game changer, and perhaps push the Senate away from its own bad proposals. If not, it will mean that a majority of our elected officials think that the 4th Amendment and the privacy of Americans is not particularly important. So right about now might be a good time to contact your representative to see where they stand on this.