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White House, intel chiefs want to make digital spying law permanent

10 June 2017

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday grappled with an aspect of federal intelligence law that has been at the center of President Donald Trump's accusations of improper surveillance under the Obama administration.

While the hearing was explicitly meant to focus on FISA, its timing - a day before former FBI Director James Comey will testify for the first time since his firing - led Senators to frequently derail conversation around the intended topic.

Video of the hearing is available here and below.

Privacy advocates have criticized the law though for allowing the incidental collection of data belonging to millions of Americans without a search warrant.

A bloc of conservative senators support that move, setting the stage for what is likely to be a contentious debate with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives who want transparency and oversight reforms to Section 702 and a limit on searches of USA communications.

For more than a year, US intelligence officials reassured lawmakers they were working to calculate and reveal roughly how many Americans have their digital communications vacuumed up under a warrant-less surveillance law meant to target foreigners overseas.

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In the course of justifying Section 702 as an invaluable tool for counterterrorism and counterproliferation efforts, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats claimed that agencies have made "herculean" efforts to get a count on how many Americans have been affected, but in spite of those efforts it remains impossible. Burr asked NSA Director Mike Rogers, who replied that there had not been, and said that if Section 702 collection was not authorized, the NSA would be unable to identify and prevent critical threats to United States national security. "We can not allow adversaries overseas to cloak themselves in the legal protections we extend to Americans".

The statute, which grants the National Security Agency a considerable freedom in the collection of foreigners' digital communications, normally comes with a "sunset" clause, meaning that roughly every five years lawmakers need to reconsider its impact on privacy and civil liberties.

Coats and other officials had previously told Congress they would attempt to share an estimate publicly before the statute expires.

Intelligence officials have been promising Congress they would provide lawmakers with an estimate of the number of American communications that are collected under Section 702. A frustrated Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who has asked for such an estimate for several years, said Coats "went back on a pledge".

Graham was among 14 Republican senators, including every Republican member of the intelligence panel, who on Tuesday introduced a bill supported by the White House and top intelligence chiefs, that would renew Section 702 without changes and make it permanent.

White House, intel chiefs want to make digital spying law permanent