The House Intelligence Committee has launched a working group to address renewing one the country’s most controversial spy tools, a heavy lift made more challenging by growing GOP distrust of the intelligence community.
The group, comprised of three members of each party, will weigh Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows for the warrantless surveillance of foreigners outside of the United States, even while they are communicating with U.S. citizens on domestic soil.
The law is set to expire at the end of the year, and while its reauthorization is widely backed by Intelligence members, it faces hurdles before the broader legislature.
“I believe that the reauthorization of Section 702 is necessary to ensure the Intelligence Community maintains its ability to collect invaluable foreign intelligence to stay a step ahead of our adversaries, but corrections must be made to protect American citizens’ constitutional rights,” Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said in a release announcing the appointment of members to the group.
“Unfortunately, there have been significant and egregious abuses of Section 702 that have eroded the trust of the American people, putting FISA’s reauthorization at risk.”
Critics see FISA Section 702 as ripe for abuse. Though the law doesn’t allow it to be used to target U.S. citizens, they argue the warrantless system doesn’t include enough oversight as it sweeps in the communications of Americans communicating with foreigners.
Rep. Darren LaHood (R-Ill.), who is set to lead the working group, raised that issue himself in a recent hearing, saying he was improperly queried as a result of the law.
“This careless abuse of this critical tool by the FBI is unfortunate. Ironically, I think it gives me a good opportunity and a unique perspective about what’s wrong with the FBI,” he said earlier this month at a hearing with intelligence leaders.
While Republican skepticism towards the renewal push comes amid broader GOP attack on the independence of the FBI, lawmakers on the left have expressed concerns that such tools can disproportionately impact people of color and otherwise infringe upon constitutional rights.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the House Progressive Caucus, has said the reauthorization process “must include meaningful reforms to protect Fourth Amendment rights” against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Other members of the working group include Republican Reps. Chris Stweart (Utah) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Penn.), and Democratic Reps. Andre Carson (Ind.), Joaquin Castro (Texas) and Jason Crow (Colo.).
The intelligence community has already kicked off their own lobbying for the reauthorization, with Attorney General Merrick Garland and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines sending a letter to lawmakers noting information acquired through Section 702 helped disrupt terrorist plots and attempts by adversaries to recruit U.S.-based spies.
In one case, information was used to stop components for weapons of mass destruction from reaching adversaries, and in another, information contributed to the U.S. killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last year.
Stewart previously told The Hill Intelligence members will also have to make a push for the law.
“So it hasn’t been a slam dunk for a while. It wasn’t a slam dunk in ‘18, right? It was hard. And I pushed hard for FISA reauthorization then. But it’s going to be harder this year. And I think there’s a number of reasons,” he said.
“I just think it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of kind of one-on-one conversations with people. The key to getting us there is to show the success we’ve had with 702, to show examples of where it’s been important in the last two years.”
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the committee, said they would also explore reforms that could help win over skeptical lawmakers.
“FISA 702 is a powerful tool that the Intelligence Community uses every day to prevent terrorist attacks, disrupt cyber attacks, and gain unique intelligence insights on foreign targets,” he said in a statement.
“Allowing this critical authority to lapse would be deeply negligent and put our national security at risk. At the same time, it is our duty as Representatives to ensure that these authorities do not violate Americans’ constitutionally protected rights and to look at further reforms to protect those rights.”