On Thursday, the head of the National Intelligence Agency asked Congress to extend a contentious surveillance capability aimed at foreign nationals that can reveal Americans’ communications.
NSA Head Paul Nakasone stated that it is critical for national security to renew Section 702 in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prior to it expiring at the conclusion of the year, which permits intelligence services to gather foreign persons’ online communications without a warrant.
Civil rights groups have criticized Section 702 because it exposes Americans’ messages if they communicate with a foreigner under monitoring. Its renewal may also meet growing opposition in Congress, as Republicans look into the security agencies.
“Whether we are reporting on cybersecurity concerns, counterterrorism threats, or defending US and ally forces, this authority offers the US government with irreplaceable insights,” Nakasone said at a hearing of the US Civil and Privacy Rights Oversight Board. “We have saved lives as a result of 702.”
Section 702, first enacted in 2008, was renewed in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, despite his claim that the power was linked to the largely discredited Steele Dossier, which purported to show cooperation between Russia and the Trump team. Following a chat with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Trump reaffirmed the powers, despite early misgivings.
According to Nakasone, the power “plays an outsized role in safeguarding the nation” and is critical in understanding hostile countries such as China. He noted that owing to national security concerns, he couldn’t fully describe everything permitted by the powers.
According to critics, the surveillance capabilities are problematic because they give intelligence agencies a backdoor into monitoring US citizens without even a warrant. In June 2021, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson alleged that the NSA was “watching” his show’s “electronic communications,” which may have been linked to requests for interviews with foreign nationals.
At the Thursday meeting, Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stated that Section 702 powers were basically a “national security exception to the United States Constitution.”
“The American people, like people everywhere else, have lost the capacity to have private conversations through digital networks,” she added.
The expiring of Section 702 might spark a discussion among House Republicans, who have grown increasingly distrustful of intelligence services in the aftermath of the Russia connection hoax, which was made possible in part by faulty intelligence.
This week, House Republicans also voted to establish a committee to probe the FBI and other security agencies. “The security state feels that it is above the Constitution and the legislation passed by Congress,” stated Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC) on the House floor on Tuesday. “We’re placing the deep state on notice today. We are coming to get you on behalf of ordinary Americans.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) expressed “serious worries” about Section 702, but told The Associated Press that amendments may be implemented to assure “no abuses in the future.”