U.S. News

Surveillance and Privacy Debate Reaches Pivotal Moment in Congress

(New York Times)  WASHINGTON — A yearslong debate over National Security Agency surveillance and protections for Americans’ privacy rights will reach a climactic moment on Thursday as the House of Representatives takes up legislation to extend a program of warrantless spying on internet and phone networks that traces back to the Sept. 11 attacks.

There is little doubt that Congress will extend an expiring statute, known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, that permits the government to collect without a warrant from American firms, like Google and AT&T, the emails and other communications of foreigners abroad — even when they are talking to Americans.

But it is far from clear whether Congress will impose significant new safeguards for Americans’ privacy. A bipartisan coalition of civil-liberties-minded lawmakers are trying to impose such changes, while the Trump administration, the intelligence community and House Republican leadership oppose them.

Thursday’s vote is seen as the crucial test because more would-be reformers are in the House than in the Senate, which will take up the legislation later. If majority support for imposing new privacy protections on the program does not exist in the House, the Senate is unlikely to add them in.

“The chances are better in the House,” acknowledged Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, at a news conference on Wednesday of House and Senate lawmakers who support surveillance overhaul efforts. “The privacy movement is stronger in the House than the Senate. Maybe we can learn from you guys.”

The N.S.A. began collecting Americans’ international phone calls and emails without a warrant in October 2001 as part of the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 Stellarwind program. In 2008, after the program had come to light, Congress legalized a form of it by enacting Section 702 of the FISA law. That law enabled the program to expand to Silicon Valley firms, not just telecoms, and to all foreign intelligence purposes, not just counterterrorism.

In late 2012, Congress extended the law for five years without changes. But the pending expiration of Section 702 is forcing lawmakers to address its substance for the first time since the 2013 leaks about N.S.A. programs by Edward J. Snowden set off a major debate about 21st-century surveillance technology and privacy rights.

On Thursday, the House will vote on an Intelligence Committee bill that would extend the 702 program for six years with only minor changes. But House leaders are permitting lawmakers first to vote on a single proposed amendment that would make major changes.

Chief among them, the amendment would ban the practice whereby officials at the N.S.A., the F.B.I. and other security agencies, without a warrant, search for and read private messages of Americans that the government incidentally swept up under the 702 program. Instead, except in emergencies, officials would need to obtain a court order to query the repository for an American’s information.

The amendment is chiefly sponsored by Representative Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, and Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California. It would substitute in the text of another bill, dubbed the USA Rights Act, which would extend Section 702 by only four years.

The bipartisan coalition backing overhaul efforts — which includes some of the most conservative and most liberal members of the House — say that change is necessary to uphold the meaning and substance of Fourth Amendment privacy rights in light of 21st-century communications technology and surveillance powers.

Read the full story here: Surveillance and Privacy Debate Reaches Pivotal Moment in Congress