Jake Laperruque, Senior Counsel for The Constitution Project at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), [email protected] or 202-347-1122; or Tim Farnsworth, Chief Communications Strategist at POGO, [email protected] or 202-550-9402.
(Washington, D.C.)--The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is disappointed with today’s rushed vote by the House of Representatives to pass legislation reauthorizing the government’s warrantless-surveillance program and codifying its most controversial practices with no real reforms to protect the privacy of Americans.
The program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was set to expire later this month after Congress passed a short-term extension in December. Today’s vote was 256 to 164 in favor of the “The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act,” which would extend the program until the end of 2023.
The bill codifies the “backdoor search loophole,” which lets the FBI deliberately seek out Americans’ private communications obtained without a warrant for any law enforcement purpose absent any suspicion of wrongdoing.
“By Congress allowing the backdoor search loophole to exist, Americans may find their Fourth Amendment rights violated, and the contents of their communications funneled to investigations that have nothing to do with foreign intelligence or national security,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for The Constitution Project at POGO.
The bill also codifies “About” collection--the practice of collecting communications that aren’t from or to targets, but mention the targets mode of communication, such as the email address or username of a target. This can implicate wholly domestic communications. The National Security Agency has said “About” collection isn’t critical for keeping Americans safe. Even worse, language added to the bill may expand “About” collection to include mere keywords that reference targets--thus, merely mentioning “ISIS” or “Vladimir Putin” in the contents of an email could be subject to warrantless collection.
“The bill will now move to the Senate for consideration, where we hope Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) will make good on their promise to filibuster the bill, and push Congress towards reasonable reforms,” said Laperruque.
“The lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the Section 702 program is deeply troubling. The program can collect the private communications of millions of Americans, but the public doesn’t know the true number of Americans affected because the Intelligence Community went back on a commitment to Congress to provide an estimate of how many Americans are affected by the program’s collection,” Laperruque went on to say.
“Rather than press for facts on how the surveillance program impacts their constituents, Congress is now ramming through an expansion of the warrantless-surveillance program without a properly informed public debate,” Laperruque said.
The legislation nominally extends whistleblower protections against retaliation to Intelligence Community contractors, but the language does not ensure that those who blow the whistle to expose fraud, waste, abuse, and illegality will actually remain free from retaliation by their supervisors.
“Until Intelligence Community contractors feel comfortable blowing the whistle because they know they will be protected from retaliation, Congress is creating an incentive for them to go outside of proper reporting channels,” said POGO’s public policy director Liz Hempowicz.
Prior to passage of the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, a bipartisan amendment by Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) to substitute the USA Rights Act -- the marker bill for privacy advocates -- failed 183-233, indicating strong support for reforms of Section 702. Congress would better serve the American people by stepping back and finding a balance that includes some reasonable reforms than rushing ahead with legislation that expands warrantless surveillance.