Watch Republicans Grill FBI Over Alleged Domestic Surveillance Abuses
House lawmakers are holding a hearing today that foreshadows months of fierce debate over one of the country's most controversial warrantless surveillance programs.OffEnglish
Members of Congress taking part in a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday are expected to grill Department of Justice officials over the FBI's alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to surveil US citizens and prominent political figures, including an aide to Donald Trump. Though the hearing will focus on the FBI's use of the law, lawmakers will likely use the space as a platform to debate the very existence of Section 702, a key FISA surveillance provision set to expire later this year.
This certainly isn't the first time lawmakers have squabbled over Section 702, but Electronic Frontier Foundation Director of Federal Affairs India McKinney told Gizmodo she believed the outcome of the debates could be different this time because it's "really not a partisan fight."
Lawmakers from both sides of the political and ideological extremes have found some common cause in reigning in FISA. The real divide, McKinney said, is between the more transparent judiciary committees and notoriously closed of intelligence committees. The latter will often cite classified or inaccessible evidence of security threats to justify maintaining the current level of surveillance powers.
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"If your tool is a hammer you see everything as a nail," she said.
McKinney said she was impressed by the committee's choices of witnesses for the hearing and believed they would speak forcefully on FISA reforms. Like most high-profile hearings involving members of the newly appointed GOP majority House, however, there's always a risk they could trail off onto "side quests" or spiral into an out-of-control slugfest of conspiracy-tinged attacks.
The hearing starts at 9:00 a.m. EST. You can watch below:
What are FISA and Section 702?
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Intelligence Surveillance Act refers to a 2008 provision added to the landmark 1978 FISA legislation. When it was first passed during the Carter Administration, FISA was intended to serve as a bulwark against unauthorized domestic spying on US citizens by intelligence agencies like the NSA and CIA. Section 702, enacted amid the slog of the worsening American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanded FISA's remit by authorizing the collection and dissemination of communications of non-US citizens located outside the country.
Unlike previous FISA restrictions, Section 702 no longer required a potential government surveillance target to be a spy or other agent of a foreign government. Crucially, Section 702 compels US tech companies like Google and Meta as well as telecommunication companies to hand over communications of government surveillance targets.
Civil liberties groups like the ACLU and EFF have long argued Section 702's explicit prohibition on surveilling US citizens amounts to little more than an unrealized formality. In reality, critics say 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. That loophole, they say, leads to a disturbing, and legally dubious end run around US citizens' Fourth Amendment protections.
Opposition to FISA makes unlikely political allies of progressive Dems and Trumpers
Progressive lawmakers and left-leaning civil liberty groups have opposed Section 702 over fears agencies could abuse its powers to target political dissidents and marginalized communities, but the provision more recently earned the ire of Donald-Trump-stanning Republicans as well. That shift started after reports revealed the FBI used 702 to wiretap Trump campaign foreign policy director Carter Page. The Justice Department eventually fessed up to its abuse of the system following watchdog pressure and acknowledged it lacked probable cause in at least two of the four warrants it used to surveil the Trump aide.
Those revelations, alongside a general souring towards intelligence agencies on the political right, have led to a renewed, heated skepticism of FISA courts and Section 702 across a wide swath of the political spectrum. Illinois Republican rep Rep. Darin LaHood stoked that skepticism last month during a House Intelligence Committee hearing where he accused the FBI of wrongly searching his name in foreign surveillance data collected under the program. House lawmakers, according to a recent Politico report, aren't interested in hearing the FBI's make a case for upholding Section 702 as is.
McKinney of the EFF says lawmakers' findings themselves personally on the receiving end of perceived government overreach could make them more amicable to reforms.
"Nobody wants to know they are the target of a secret investigation," McKinney said.
Battle lines are already being drawn between a bipartisan mix of lawmakers who want to see Section 702 sunsetted entirely and those who would rather it continue on with reforms. Just this week, a bipartisan pair of California lawmakers in charge of the "Foruth Amendment Caucus" wrote a letter to colleagues seen by The Hill saying they intended to fight to "safeguard against warrantless searches and seizures," while still keeping the program intact.
"It is crucial to emphasize that the reforms spearheaded by the Caucus will protect American civil liberties while preserving national security," Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Rep. Tom McClintock wrote in their letter.
Mounting lawmakers' interest aside, McKinney said it has historically been difficult to get the general public to care in FISA reform, which can often feel amorphous and impersonal.
"It's either too scary for people to think that it's happening but it also doesn't fit on a bumper sticker."