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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.
- The Senate Intelligence Committee leadership’s “FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act” would renew Section 702 for eight years, explicitly codifies the use of intelligence data for domestic surveillance and to investigate domestic crimes unrelated to terrorism, and is being debated in secret.
- RECOMMENDATION: KILL IT WITH FIRE
- The House Judiciary Committee leadership’s “USA Liberty Act” would improve the administration of the FISA Court but would renew Section 702 for 5.5 years without fixing the FBI backdoor searches problem, where the FBI uses searches of NSA data to get around the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
- RECOMMENDATION: ALSO KILL WITH FIRE
- Now we come to the only realistic proposal on the table that would actually go a long way to fix the problems with Section 702 surveillance: Sen. Wyden’s and Sen. Paul’s just-introduced “USA RIGHTS Act.” It has also been introduced in the House by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).