NSA director urges Congress to renew surveillance powers
A senior US intelligence official on Thursday called on Congress to renew the sweeping powers granted to American spy agencies to monitor and investigate communications, saying they are crucial to stopping terrorism, cyberattacks and other threats.
Comments by Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency, opened a predictably controversial debate over provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which expire at the end of the year. The bipartisan consensus in favor of expanded surveillance powers in the post-9/11 years has given way to increasing skepticism, particularly among some Republicans who believe spy services used those powers to undermine former President Donald Trump.
The new GOP majority in the US House of Representatives has already formed a body to “arm the federal government”. And progressive Democrats have pushed for more curbing of groundless surveillance.
The NSA and other spy agencies use FISA Section 702 agencies to collect vast swaths of foreign communications, which also leads to the random collection of emails and phone calls from Americans. The law prohibits spy agencies from targeting Americans and requires the FBI to seek a court order to access a US citizen’s communications.
Section 702 was first added to FISA in 2008 and extended for six years in 2018 when Trump originally tweeted against the program but then reversed himself.
Nakasone argued that the law “plays an outsized role in protecting the nation” and generates “some of the US government’s most valuable intelligence on our most difficult targets.”
General Paul M. Nakasone is director of the National Security Agency. Alex Wong/Getty Images
He gave several broad examples of this work, including uncovering attempts to steal sensitive US technology, stopping the transfer of weapons components, preventing cyberattacks and understanding “the strategic intentions” of China and Russia.
“We saved 702 lives because of that,” Nakasone said at a virtual meeting of the US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
The general said he could not publicly share more details about the implications of this surveillance, acknowledging that it also limited his ability to present his case. Civil rights advocates have long criticized the secrecy of Secret Service court proceedings, and power agencies spend years collecting random data on Americans.
Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Congress created an effective “national security exemption from the US Constitution.”
“The American people, and indeed people around the world, have lost the ability to have private conversations over digital networks,” she told the board. Section 702, Cohn said, “was a mass surveillance infrastructure that subjected people’s communications to NSA scrutiny.”
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and other national security hawks are expected to urge fellow GOPs to back a renewal this year that will be accompanied by as yet unspecified changes.
“We need to have a discussion within our own caucus, but I feel good about the groundwork that we’ve laid,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who will lead the House of Representatives’ new special committee on China, in one Interview this week. “There are serious and legitimate concerns. And so part of the renewal process is to implement reform that gives people confidence that there will be no abuse in the future.”
In December 2019, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the FBI withheld vital information from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when it requested a warrant to intercept communications from Trump campaign aide Carter Page. But the inspector general made clear to what extent the agents relied during this trial on unverified allegations compiled by a former British spy.
The chief justice of that court gave the FBI an unusual rebuke, saying it made “unsupported” statements when it filed the wiretapping requests and failed to provide other information that weakened the government’s case for surveillance.
In response to the review, the FBI announced a series of changes to ensure its submissions to the court that authorizes warrants for wiretapping on American soil against people suspected of being agents of a foreign power are more accurate.
Congress expired three provisions of the Patriot Act in 2020 that the FBI and Justice Department had described as essential to national security, including one that allows investigators to monitor individuals without showing they are acting on behalf of an international terrorist organization. A bill to renew these agencies passed the Senate, but Democrats pulled legislation from the House after Trump and House Republicans opposed the measure and ensured their defeat.