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FBI Surveillance Powers Face Tough Fight for Renewal

Key lawmakers say they won’t vote to renew FBI's vast powers to collect foreign communications, which expire at the end of this year, without major changes at the agency, the Associated Press reports. Growing anger at the FBI over its handling of surveillance that often sweeps up Americans' emails and phone calls has turned into a major hurdle to renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Many blame problems with how the FBI’s special agents search for U.S. citizens using Section 702, along with publicly revealed mistakes in other intelligence investigations by the bureau. Among the revelations since the law was last renewed in 2018: The bureau misled surveillance court judges in seeking to wiretap a 2016 campaign aide for former President Donald Trump, and agents didn’t follow guidelines in searching Section 702 databases for the names of a congressman on the House Intelligence Committee, a local political party, and people of Middle Eastern descent.

Under Section 702, the U.S. collects foreign communications without a warrant — and with the required participation of American telecom companies — to create databases that analysts can search for intelligence purposes. They can target foreigners outside the U.S. for collection. Agencies cannot target American citizens or foreigners on U.S. soil, or go after a foreigner with the purpose of collecting a U.S. citizen’s emails or phone calls. But civil liberties advocates have long argued that the program may violate the Fourth Amendment by giving the FBI warrantless access to vast amounts of Americans’ communications. The debate is of great consequence to U.S. intelligence officials, who argue that the law is perhaps their most critical tool to stopping terrorism, enemy spies, and cyberattacks. According to the intelligence community, 59% of the items in the briefing given daily to President Joe Biden last year featured information the National Security Agency captured under Section 702. “Section 702 has kept American citizens safe and our U.S. service members abroad out of danger,” said Rep. Mike Turner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement. “However, changes must be made in order to prevent further FBI misuse and abuse of this vital national security tool.” Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, issued a joint statement in March saying the FBI was searching for Americans “at an alarming scale” and calling for an overhaul of the program. The FBI says it uses foreign communications for its national security investigations and tightly controls how agents access Americans’ data. Bureau officials this week released a checklist their agents are supposed to use in conducting searches. They also have overhauled their computer systems and added new mandatory training for agents in December 2021.


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