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House Panel Offers Overhaul to NSA Spy Program

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 24, 2017.

The U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee said it had introduced a bill Wednesday to overhaul a National Security Agency surveillance program to better protect Americans’ privacy.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the NSA to collect vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside the United States. The program incidentally gathers communications with Americans and the government can search them without a warrant.

Section 702

U.S. intelligence officials consider Section 702 among the most vital of tools at their disposal to thwart national security threats.

“This bill updates the rules on Section 702 and other collection by strengthening privacy protections and transparency without hindering the ability of our intelligence professionals to monitor terror suspects, analyze collected data and keep us safe,” the committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Devin Nunes, said in a statement introducing the bill.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calf., answers questions during an interview at the Associated Press bureau in Washington, Nov. 7, 2017.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calf., answers questions during an interview at the Associated Press bureau in Washington, Nov. 7, 2017.

The top Democrat on the panel, Representative Adam Schiff, said earlier Wednesday he had proposed a compromise that would let intelligence agencies query a database of information on Americans in national security cases without a warrant, but would require a warrant to use the information in other cases, such as those involving serious violent crime.

“This would prevent law enforcement from simply using the database as a vehicle to go fishing, but at the same time it would preserve the operational capabilities of the program,” Schiff told reporters.

Classified details of the program were exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Congress must renew Section 702 in some form by Dec. 31 or the program will expire.

Deep divides

Schiff said he believed the compromise would be acceptable to many lawmakers, as well as the intelligence community and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is similar to legislation backed by the House Judiciary Committee.

However, there are still deep divides in both the Senate and the House over what to do about Section 702, as lawmakers balance demands for privacy protections with spy agencies’ desire to preserve what they see as a valuable tool. There are different renewal proposals in the House and Senate.

It was unclear whether lawmakers will vote on a standalone 702 bill or whether it would be part of a broader bill, such as a spending measure Congress must pass next month to keep the government open.