U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging Congress to “promptly” reauthorize section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) scheduled to expire at the end of this year.
The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats also signed the letter, addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Section 702 of FISA “allows the Intelligence Community, under a robust regime of oversight by all three branches of government, to collect vital information about international terrorists, cyber actors, individuals and entities engaged in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other important foreign intelligence targets located outside the United States,” Sessions and Coats wrote.
They added: “Reauthorizing this critical authority is the top legislative priority of the Department of Justice and the Intelligence Community. As publicly reported by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, information collected under one particular section of FAA, Section 702, produces significant foreign intelligence that is vital to protect the nation against international terrorism and other threats.”
FISA was enacted in 1978 as a response to illegal domestic surveillance operations revealed by two Senate committees in the 1970s, including President Richard Nixon’s use of federal intelligence agencies to monitor his political opponents. It was brought into law “to authorize electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information.”
The law requires the government to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before setting up an electronic or physical wiretap targeted at foreigners and foreign agents.
Congress amended FISA in 2007 to let the government wiretap communications that either begin or end outside the United States jurisdiction without Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) approval; in a stronger 2008 overhaul, they further limited that power to non-U.S. persons. The last reauthorization of the act was in 2012, which set the current expiration date of Dec. 31, 2017.
The FISA law has long been criticized by privacy and civil liberties advocates like the EFF who say the order allows broad, intrusive spying without oversight. The section first gained renewed attention following the 2013 disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the agency carried out widespread monitoring of emails and other electronic communications through Prism, XKeyScore, Upstream and other NSA surveillance programs. In fact, the first Snowden leak was a FISC order issued to Verizon under Section 702 that required the company to turn over all of its calling records to the NSA.