WASHINGTON — Intelligence and law enforcement officials across the government lobbied Congress Monday to let them conduct broad surveillance on foreign targets in coming years, saying it helps prevent terrorist and cyberattacks on the United States. They said current rules adequately safeguard the privacy of Americans.
More than 10 senior officials with the CIA, National Security Agency, FBI, Justice Department and national intelligence director’s office made their case to news reporters for why Congress should reauthorize a highly contentious section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
They said the authority to target the communications of foreigners located outside the United States yields intelligence on terrorist plots, weapons proliferation, malicious cyber operations and other threats to U.S. national security. The officials said 106,469 foreigners abroad currently are being targeted — up from about 89,000 in 2013. The authority expires at the end of the year and lawmakers are weighing reauthorization.
The senior government officials briefed reporters on behalf of their departments and agencies on condition they not be quoted by name.
The program has been a source of endless debate in recent years between security officials and privacy advocates who complain that information about Americans also is being swept up.
The intelligence officials Monday cited several recent successes as a result of the surveillance:
- Helped stop a U.S. manufacturer from unwittingly selling $200,000 in goods to a weapons proliferation network.
- Tipped Turkish authorities to the whereabouts of a man suspected of conducting a New Year’s attack on a nightclub in Istanbul that killed 39 people. The suspect was captured after evading police for more than two weeks.
- Gained information about a foreign adversary’s cyber tactics that could stop a future cyberattack against the United States.
- Flushed out a network run by a man from Trinidad and Tobago who traveled to Syria and used social media to recruit militants for the Islamic State group.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who briefly stepped into the briefing, said getting the law renewed is his “top priority this year.”
National Security Agency director Mike Rogers told senators earlier this year that a lot of what was in the intelligence agencies’ assessment on Russian meddling in the U.S. election was informed by knowledge gained through the program. Earlier this month, Coats and Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a letter to top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, asking them to not only reauthorize it as it’s written, but to make it a permanent fixture in the law books.
Most Republicans and Democrats want the surveillance tool to continue. Some are proposing a specified period of time so it that can be periodically reviewed. There also are calls to bolster safeguards to protect the privacy of Americans whose communications can get collected in surveillance of foreigners targeted overseas.
The program may not be used to intentionally target a U.S. person anywhere in the world. Nor may the law be used to intentionally target any person, regardless of nationality, who is in the United States.
Even though the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has ended, calls and emails are still gathered by U.S. surveillance work targeting foreigners. Intelligence officials say they follow stringent protocol when dealing with communications of Americans incidentally acquired.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democratic champion of privacy rights, has asked intelligence officials to determine how many U.S. citizens’ communications have been collected. Intelligence officials said they’ve tried to figure that out and shared with Congress the results of those attempts. They say it’s difficult to determine the nationality of people whose communications are collected when they’re not the targets.
No bill to reauthorize the surveillance authority has been introduced in the House. Lawmakers there are expected to keep it from expiring.
In the Senate, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican hawk, introduced a bill in June to reauthorize the program permanently. Wyden and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky currently are drafting another bill.