U.S. Spy Chiefs Say Expiring Program Key to Stopping Threats

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  • The provision expires in December unless Congress renews it
  • Critics want limits on information picked up about Americans

Top U.S. national security officials called on Congress to quickly renew a counterterrorism program that lets intelligence agencies intercept the communications of tens of thousands of suspected foreign terrorists living abroad.

“It has become an indispensable tool by which we can determine and game information about threats to the United States, about threats to our troops, about weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, about cyberattacks -- about any number of things that threaten the American way and the American people,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Friday at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “So the reauthorization of this authority is incredibly critical.”

The government’s authority to use the program -- known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- expires at the end of December unless it’s reauthorized by Congress, where some members want stricter limits on information that’s picked up about U.S. citizens. A coalition of 40 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP, sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to require the FBI to obtain court warrants to search data collected under the program in most cases.

Coats, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and FBI Director Christopher Wray defended the program at the event Friday and raised alarms that significantly curtailing the program’s authorities would put American lives at risk.

Islamic State Recruiter

Asked to cite the benefits of the program, Rogers said it was used to help the U.S. understand the extent of Russia’s effort to meddle in last year’s presidential campaign. Intelligence collected under the program also was used to identify a recruiter for Islamic State who advocated killing U.S. military personnel, Wray said. The recruiter, Shawn Parson, was killed in Syria in 2015.

“We now face a serious and constantly evolving threat landscape where travel and technology have blurred the line between foreign and domestic risks,” said Wray, who in August succeeded fired FBI chief James Comey. “We now have a greater volume of arguably more compact threats and much less time to detect and disrupt any one of those potential threats.”

The government uses Section 702 authorities to operate programs like Prism, under which Internet companies are compelled to turn over emails and other electronic communications of suspected foreign terrorists abroad. Prism came to light when former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed classified U.S. spy programs in 2013.

The ACLU and its allies said they can’t support a bipartisan bill being drafted by House lawmakers because it doesn’t have sufficient requirements related to court warrants.

‘Must Be Improved’

“This bill doesn’t do enough to protect Americans’ privacy and it must be improved,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the ACLU.

Wray and Rogers cited the layers of restrictions and oversight on the program, internally as well as by Congress and federal judges, as a sign of how it doesn’t let the intelligence agencies run roughshod over the rights of Americans or foreigners. The program has been found to be constitutional by the courts, Wray said.

The FBI director said he was significantly concerned by proposals that would limit or impede his bureau’s ability to search the data. He said the Federal Bureau of Investigation receives only 4.3 percent of all data collected by the NSA under the program -- the first time that number has been revealed. He also said the FBI needs the ability to search the data to identify as quickly as possible potential threats, crimes or terrorist attacks.

“This is what building a wall feels like,” Wray said, referring to restrictions that were in place before the September 2001 terrorist attacks. “Any material change to the FBI’s use of Section 702 would severely inhibit our ability to keep the American people safe.”

‘Limitless Standard’

Senators including Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky are demanding new language to ensure the spying doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens who are on one end of an intercepted communication are mentioned in it.

“The data collected under Section 702 is gathered under an almost limitless standard,” Wyden and Paul wrote in an op-ed column published Oct. 11 by NBC News. “A constitutional problem arises, however, when we allow the Intelligence Community and domestic law enforcement to search and use the data collected on Americans without constitutional protections.”

The senators also criticized intelligence agencies for refusing to provide an estimate of how many Americans have had their communications inadvertently intercepted -- and possibly searched -- without court warrants.

The number of foreigners targeted under Section 702 rose to about 106,000 in the previous fiscal year from 94,000 in 2015, according to U.S. intelligence officials who asked not to be identified discussing the information.

Under current law, the NSA can incidentally intercept the communications of a U.S. person and store that information in a database without a specific warrant, as long as the target of the surveillance is a foreigner suspected of terrorism or other crimes operating in another country.

Intelligence analysts can review information about U.S. persons contained in the database under limited circumstances. However, a specific warrant is required if an American becomes the target of surveillance.

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