House to take up bill to reauthorize crucial US spy program as expiration date looms

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is set to consider a bill next week that would reauthorize a surveillance program that U.S. officials consider vital to national security but that critics say raises privacy concerns.

The action comes shortly before the program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expires on April 19. It was up for reauthorization last year but was instead granted a short-term extension as part of a massive defense policy bill that passed the House in December.

Though the prospect for passage is uncertain because of scrambled political alliances and deep resistance from civil liberties advocates, senior administration officials said in a call with reporters on Friday that they believed the bill preserved the most critical aspects of the spy program while also including guardrails that don’t undermine its purpose and effectiveness.

Section 702 permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence.

U.S. officials have said the tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions and foreign espionage and has also produced intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations, such as the 2022 killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

But the administration’s efforts to secure reauthorization of the program have encountered fierce, and bipartisan, pushback, with Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden who have long championed civil liberties aligning with Republican supporters of former President Donald Trump to demand better privacy protections for Americans and proposing a slew of competing bills.

A specific area of concern for lawmakers has centered on the FBI’s access to information about Americans through the program. Though the surveillance program only targets non-Americans in other countries, it also collects communications of Americans when they are in contact with those targeted foreigners.

In the past year, U.S. officials have revealed a series of abuses and mistakes by FBI analysts in improperly querying the intelligence repository for information about Americans or others in the U.S, including about a member of Congress and participants in the racial justice protests of 2020 and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The bill to be taken up Tuesday would require approval from an FBI lawyer for database searches about Americans and others inside the U.S.; mandatory auditing of all such searches; and restrictions on searches designed solely to find evidence of criminal activity as opposed to a foreign intelligence purpose.

Administration officials say they’re prepared for an amendment to be introduced that would require a warrant in order to review the results of queries on an American, which the administration opposes.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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