Apr 9, 2024 - Technology

Lawmakers face deadline for renewing key surveillance program

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Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Congress has just 10 days to renew a key government surveillance program before it expires, and a committee vote on Tuesday will set the course for how lawmakers proceed.

Why it matters: Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has helped intelligence agencies collect data as part of counterterrorism, cybercrime, drug trafficking and several other types of investigations.

  • But House Republicans are divided on how to address the program. Some side with the intelligence community, arguing the program should stay intact as is.
  • Others side with privacy advocates and are pushing for changes to the program over reports that it's been abused to spy on unsuspecting Americans — including a U.S. senator and other officials.

Driving the news: The House Rules Committee will vote Tuesday on the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act.

  • The bill has gone through several iterations in the last couple of months, but the latest version, unveiled Friday, removes the opportunity to add the privacy amendments that lawmakers had appeared ready to support earlier this year.
  • Experts suspect that if the bill passes the Rules Committee, it will get a floor vote this week — and the Senate is anticipated to pass whatever bill the House sends its way.
  • FISA Section 702 officially sunsets on April 19 — although parts of the program are authorized to run for another year.

Zoom out: FISA Section 702 allows intelligence agencies to conduct warrantless surveillance of noncitizens based outside the U.S., including by allowing them to read text messages, emails and other online communications.

  • But some U.S. communications can sneak into collections if Americans are talking with non-U.S. citizens overseas.
  • Section 702 program data collected is stored for years in a searchable database that intelligence agencies can tap as part of other investigations — which is where privacy advocates, progressives and far-right conservatives take issue.
  • These groups argue that intelligence agencies should need a warrant to tap this collected information. But agencies say such a requirement would impede their ability to investigate serious issues, like ongoing ransomware attacks or terrorism plots.

Catch up quick: This week's committee vote marks the third time House lawmakers have tried to pass a compromise legislative package.

  • In February, Speaker Mike Johnson's office spiked debate at the last minute on another legislative package over unknown disagreements.
  • At that point, lawmakers were expected to also add an amendment that would require warrants for database searches and another that would bar data broker sales to the federal government.
  • On Friday, the House Rules Committee released a new version of the bill that did not include those amendments.

The big picture: Since December, the Biden administration, privacy advocates and data brokers have embarked on a fierce lobbying campaign around Section 702.

  • A senior administration official told reporters Friday that the administration had participated in congressional briefings this year that had reached roughly 178 House members and approximately 70 senators.
  • The intelligence community is hosting a classified congressional briefing Wednesday for House members on Section 702.
  • Various issues groups have started weighing in on the debate, including RELX, owner of data broker LexisNexis, and the Gun Owners of America.

Between the lines: While Johnson has been working to sell lawmakers on the new bill, advocates aren't buying the pitch that it would change the program enough.

  • 45 of the 56 proposed reforms are plucked straight from the House Intelligence Committee's own proposal, Sean Vitka, policy counsel at Demand Progress, told Axios.
  • 15 of those reforms either weaken privacy protections or codify existing standards, Vitka added.
  • "It's trying to look like it's a compromise, but it's not," he said.

What's next: Onlookers are still waiting to see if the intelligence committee will add any amendments to the pending bills.

  • The House Rules Committee will vote Tuesday on whether to send the bill to the floor, and the House could vote as soon as Thursday, experts say.
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