To the surprise of few, Congress is once again failing to function. Congress is in a pickle, and is structurally unable to return to anything resembling “regular order”; The reform or renewal of Section 702 (which allows the infamous ‘backdoor searches’ on American citizens) may be kicked down the road to the spring as a result; we should watch carefully who becomes the new Ranking Minority member of the House Judiciary Committee.
The budget process in Congress is so broken that it has only “worked” (in the sense of having all 12 appropriations bills pass both houses on time) four times in the last forty years. Congress has increasingly relied not on the individual committees, but on the leaders of the House and Senate to pass “omnibus” appropriations bills, and to draft “continuing resolutions” (or CRs) to keep the government open in the interim at existing funding levels.
The strategy of threatening repeated shutdowns of the government, in the manner of Sen. Ted Cruz and the Freedom Caucus, has proved highly successful for Republicans. Not only have voters not punished them for it; voters have rewarded them by giving Republicans control of the House, the Senate and the Presidency. In response, the bureaucratic state – the officials in senior civil service positions – have tried to minimize the damage of shutdowns by defining which employees and departments are essential enough to not be shut down.
In practice, this means that the kinder and more laudable parts of the federal government – the national parks, help for the elderly and disabled, scientific grantmaking – get shut down, but the government’s mass surveillance programs and the bloated Department of Defense get to continue spending money like water for the sake of “national security.”
The 702 surveillance reform debate
702’s surveillance authorities expire as of December 31. All the time is being sucked up with arguments over whether there will be an omnibus spending bill, and if so, what compromises will be acceptable to both Democrats and the Freedom Caucus. The deadline to fund the government is this Friday. We’re expecting there to be a two-week “continuing resolution” Friday to give space for a broader “omnibus” spending bill to pass by December 22, enabling Congressmembers to head home for Christmas and New Year’s. So what will happen to 702?
Well, the intelligence community has begun to float the idea that maybe the legal authorities for mass surveillance don’t absolutely need to be renewed by December 31 after all. This is because mass surveillance depends on programmatic “certificates” issued by the FISA Court. These were last approved on an annual basis on April 26, giving the intelligence community potentially four extra months to persuade Congress to let them continue doing an end-run around constitutional protections for US persons before they really start to panic.
If that happens, it will provide more space for reformers as well, because of an absence of congressional consensus to formally renew these authorities. At the same time, it may be that the leadership of House Judiciary will change. John Conyers, the ranking minority member, has retired under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations. Rep. Jerrold Nadler is the acting ranking member, but it looks like ardent surveillance reformer Rep. Zoe Lofgren is thinking of challenging him for the position. If she were to become the ranking member, it would substantially brighten the prospects for real reform of 702 surveillance authorities.
Mass surveillance should be debated on its own, not reapproved quickly in the early hours of the morning at the last possible moment when nobody is looking. Four months may give us the time we need to get Congress to a better place on 702 mass surveillance.
Fixing The Problem
The hard truth is that the broad problem of the collapse of regular order in Congress is very unlikely to be fixed, because fixing it requires members of Congress to act against their immediate interests. If the recent tax bill had not been stampeded through with no hearings and no time for anybody to read it through, it would not have passed, and Republicans would have no victory to go home with to their voters. There are no votes in restoring regular order, and no officeholder will lose office as a result of Congress’s spectacular and increasing dysfunction. A president so passionately committed to process that he or she did not mind not having a policy legacy of any kind, could restore regular order by vetoing any bill not passed in a procedurally correct manner; but it seems unlikely that Congress can correct it on its own. The best we can manage is Senators who will bleat about how terrible the process is, but then vote for the result anyway.
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Section 702 Lets Spy Agencies Snoop on Americans – Without a Warrant.
In an end run around the Constitution, spy agencies have warped Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act into a way to unconstitutionally snoop on Americans.
The law was intended to allow intelligence agencies to monitor communications of foreign individuals outside the United States. But spy agencies like the NSA have claimed this authority allows them to scan through and collect the emails and phone calls of innocent Americans. Then, the government routinely does “backdoor searches” of this information, where they may look up information about U.S. persons, even for reasons completely unrelated to intelligence gathering.
It’s the same law the NSA claims justified the scandalous programs uncovered by Edward Snowden, like the PRISM program, which forces tech companies to turn over data on their servers, and Upstream collection, which automatically searches all internet traffic that crosses tapped lines connecting the U.S. with the rest of the world.
Flying in the face of the Fourth Amendment, the government searches this information specifically for Americans at least tens of thousands of times a year without a warrant, without evidence of a crime, and without independent oversight.
The so-called “USA Liberty Act” (H.R. 3989), which was recently introduced in the House, should be significantly improved to match the forthcoming strong surveillance reform being proposed by Senators Wyden and Paul. We’re disappointed that strong reformers in the House, such as Rep. John Conyers and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, have allowed their good name to be used to give the impression that the “USA Liberty Act” is anywhere near what is needed. Here’s why it falls so far short:
H.R.3989 doesn’t stop backdoor searches, which is when the government searches through the hundreds of millions of communications it collects yearly for information on Americans and people on U.S. soil – all without a warrant. Instead, the bill okays accessing and sharing this information for foreign intelligence purposes, a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.
It fails to permanently end “about” collection, an illegal practice the NSA says they’ve stopped that allows for warrantless spying on Americans’ communications that merely mention an intelligence target. Collections should be limited to communications that are “to” or “from” a target.
It doesn’t prevent the government from secretly using surveillance information in court against defendants. Despite tens of thousands of searches by the government of Section 702 data, only a handful of defendants have ever received notice of it – and only after the Department of Justice was caught misleading the Supreme Court about its practices.
It doesn’t stop Section 702 information from being used in investigations and prosecutions that have nothing to do with national security, because the bill doesn’t place any meaningful limits on when and how data collected under Section 702 can be shared with other agencies or used in court.
It gives the NSA too many free passes. The bill adds some transparency measures but doesn’t enforce them, giving the NSA leeway to ignore transparency reports to Congress, and only a small amount of information would trickle out to the public. And there’s no independent oversight into how President Trump and Attorney General Sessions interpret the law.
Spying Powers Are Already Being Abused. Under Trump Things Could Get Far Worse
Even before an authoritarian like Trump came to power, the spying powers on the books were consistently abused. The government has shown a persistent inability to follow rules that are supposed to protect Americans, as chronicled in a 2017 report by Demand Progress. Judges on the FISA Court have called the violations “a very serious Fourth Amendment issue” and complained of “an institutional ‘lack of candor’” from the spy agencies.
Surveillance powers are still being turned against activists and people of color. Muslim student associations on college campuses are infiltrated and disrupted; protesters against pipelines at Standing Rock and elsewhere are targets; and Trump’s FBI just this month was revealed to have created a new designation of “black identity extremists” to target the Black Lives Matter movement. With Trump’s clear authoritarian impulses and tendency to target vulnerable populations, Congress extending these spying powers to Trump would be catastrophic.
Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Rand Paul Get It Right with the USA RIGHTS Act
By comparison, the USA RIGHTS Act is expected to end backdoor searches, permanently ban “about” collection, and provides notice when intelligence information is used in criminal proceedings. It also is expected to contain a number of additional important provisions, including strengthening transparency around FISA court opinions, preventing solely domestic surveillance under Section 702, and much more.