WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence chiefs are making a strong push, backed by the White House, to reauthorize a controversial law that allows U.S. spy agencies to eavesdrop on foreign electronic communications.
During a Senate hearing that was largely concerned with the government’s ongoing investigations into Russia and possible collusion with members of President Donald Trump’s campaign, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats called permanent reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) his top legislative priority.
The law, set to expire at the end of the year, has been criticized repeatedly by privacy advocates who say it allows for the data of millions of U.S. citizens to be swept up in government surveillance.
Fight against terrorism
But Coats downplayed such concerns, calling the law a vital tool in the fight against terrorism.
“The purpose of the authority is to give the United States intelligence community the upper hand in trying to avert these types of attacks before they transpire,” he said, referring to last month’s attack in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people.
Coats also argued that the capabilities authorized by the surveillance law have produced a critical stream of intelligence, including information that helped the U.S. track down and ultimately kill the Islamic State terror group’s second-in-command in March 2016.
“NSA [National Security Agency] used collection, permitted and authorized under Section 702, to collect intelligence on the close associates of Haji Iman,” he said, acknowledging the program’s role in that effort for the first time.
“This collaboration enabled U.S. forces to attempt an apprehension of Haji Iman and two of his associates,” Coats added.
Admiral Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, also said the FISA program was vital to gaining an understanding of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Without 702, we could not have produced that level of insight,” Rogers said.
Impact on citizens
Still, some lawmakers remain concerned that U.S. officials have been unable to assess the program’s impact on citizens who may be inadvertently caught up in collection efforts.
And U.S. intelligence officials Wednesday had no answer for those who demanded to know how many U.S. citizens may have been swept up in the surveillance efforts, a figure Coats said would be impossible to deliver.
“You went back on a pledge, and I think it is damaging to the public,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, told Coats. “We’re going to battle it out in the course of this, because there are a lot of Americans who share our view that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive.”
But Richard Burr, a Republican who is the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said he supports the law’s reauthorization, calling it “exceptionally critical.”
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner, also voiced support, although he cautioned that any reauthorization should ensure “there is robust oversight and restrictions to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.”