FISA surveillance program: What is it and why is it so controversial?

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A program that allows for U.S. spy agencies to collect information on foreigners outside the country was reauthorized by the House Thursday morning.

The House renewed Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – a program that lets the U.S. spy on foreign targets abroad. Section 702 is controversial because Americans’ information can oftentimes be swept up in this collection. 

An amendment that would have, among other things, increased protections on how Americans’ information is collected was ultimately struck down by the House earlier Thursday morning.

As the bill heads to the Senate for a vote, here’s a look at Section 702 and what privacy advocates have to say about it. 

What is FISA Section 702?

Section 702 of FISA allows intelligence officials to oversee communications of foreigners outside the U.S. without a warrant. It’s an amendment added to FISA in 2008.

The House Intelligence Committee called Section 702 a “critical authority” that allows the U.S. to intercept “foreign terrorist threats.” 

Section 702 cannot be used to target Americans or people in the U.S., the committee said. However, the FISA Amendments Act allows the government to collect the data from American firms, such as Google or Microsoft, according to the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology.

Supporters of Section 702 , including intelligence agencies and House Republican leadership, argued that access to the database is essential to keeping Americans safe. 

What is so controversial about Section 702?

Critics of Section 702 say that the law is so broad that Americans’ communications can become easily swept up in this data collection.

The FISA Act is supposed to be used to “spy on foreigners on foreign lands,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told Fox News Thursday morning.

“But millions of Americans are accidentally or incidentally collected in this database, and we don’t want people just willy-nilly looking into this database without a warrant.”

“Millions of Americans are accidentally or incidentally collected in this database, and we don’t want people just willy-nilly looking into this database without a warrant.”

– Sen. Rand Paul

After the House voted to extend the program Thursday, Paul teased a potential filibuster when the Senate takes it up next week. 

Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said there are two major misconceptions with Section 702: that the program only involves people overseas and that it’s about foreign terrorists.

Like Paul, she also criticized the government’s access to Americans’ information collected through Section 702.

“If you’re going to search through Section 702 data, you ought to get a warrant because that’s the standard that would apply if you wanted that data to begin with,” she told Fox News.  

Ahead of the reauthorization vote on FISA, lawmakers voted on an amendment put forth by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that added restrictions on the collection and access to data involving Americans.

It would have also required a search warrant for those accessing the Section 702 database for communications by or about an American, according to information provided by Amash’s office.

The amemdment ultimately failed 233 to 183. The House voted to reauthorize Section 702 with a 256 to 164 vote.

What has the administration said?

Ahead of the House vote, President Trump suggested in a tweet that the surveillance program could have been used to “badly surveil” and “abuse” his own presidential campaign.

“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” Trump tweeted.

His tweet seemingly stood in opposition to a previous White House statement opposing any changes to the program, and he published a second tweet soon after.

“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”

Fox News’ Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 



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