High-level officials from the CIA, FBI, and NSA are testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, asking Congress to continue allowing the agency to spy on the communications of US citizens. They are urging Congress to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)—one of the nation’s most hotly contested government surveillance programs. Intelligence agencies have long cited the powerful 2008 FISA provision as an invaluable tool to effectively combat global terrorism, but critics, including an increasing number of lawmakers from both parties, say those same agencies have morphed the provision into an unchecked, warrantless domestic spying tool. The provision is set to expire at the end of this year.
Federal agents urged lawmakers to reauthorize 702 without adding new reforms that could potentially slow down or impair operators’ access to intelligence. The officials danced around advocates’ concerns of civil liberty violations and instead chose to focus on a wide array of purported national security threats they say could become reality without the “model piece of legislation.” Multiple intelligence agents speaking Tuesday invoked the specter of September 11th and warned lawmakers new safeguards limiting agents’ ability to rapidly access and share intelligence on Americans could risk a repeat scenario.
“We must not forget the lessons learned from 911” DOJ National Security Division Assitant Attorney General Matt Olsen said. Olsen laid out the stakes of the hearing saying reauthorizing 702 as the “single most consequential national security decision this Congress can make.”
“The stakes cannot be higher,” he added.
Top senators on the committee meanwhile challenged the agencies and said it was vital to put in place new safeguards such as requiring warrants before searching US citizens’ records stored on the 702 databases. Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, during his opening statement, drew a hard line in the sand, vowing not to reauthorize the program without new constitutional safeguards
“I will only support the reauthorization of section 702 If there are significant, significant reforms,” Durbin said. “And that means, first and foremost, addressing the warrantless surveillance of Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
Today’s hearing could provide a sharp contrast to an April hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee, where expert witnesses and lawmakers alike criticized the program and railed against intelligence agencies for lacking sufficient oversight or transparency. Though first introduced as a means to quickly target foreign espionage targes, section 702 has become something else entirely, according to critics like the ACLU and the EFF, who argue the government “routinely” uses the provision to collect communication information of Americans who, for whatever reason, may have had communication with a surveillance target outside of the US. Intelligence officials, during the hearing, will get their opportunity to convince the public and Congress if those privacy tradeoffs are worth it.