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Congress Considers Changes To Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act


Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is set to expire. Congress has until the end of the year to renew it. Now, this is a surveillance program that U.S. spy agencies use to collect intelligence on non-Americans. We have more from NPR's Ryan Lucas.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: There are a lot of things that U.S. intelligence agencies don't like to talk about in public - how much money they spend and what they spend that money on or, say, what they're doing in Syria or North Korea. But when it comes to the surveillance program known as Section 702, the nation's spy chiefs open right up.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: And the place that 702 is most important is in our ability to detect and prevent plots...

SUSAN GORDON: It's simply a capability that we know has great effect, demonstrable effect, that we can't replace any other way...

MIKE ROGERS: If this was removed, I can't overcome that.

LUCAS: That's how FBI Director Christopher Wray, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Susan Gordon and National Security Agency Chief Admiral Mike Rogers talked about the program at a national security conference recently in Washington, D.C. Section 702 allows the U.S. government to collect, without an individual court order, emails, text messages and phone calls of foreigners overseas, even when they're talking with Americans. The government relies on that information to keep tabs on a range of threats facing the country, says Susan Hennesy, a former NSA lawyer who's now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

SUSAN HENNESSEY: It's used in all kinds of different contexts, so, you know, to detect anything from counterterrorism threats to sanctions violations, even in some instances some cybersecurity threats.

LUCAS: Congress has less than four months to reauthorize Section 702. The big question right now isn't so much whether Congress will renew the program.


ADAM SCHIFF: I think we will reauthorize it.

LUCAS: That's Adam Schiff. He's the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.


SCHIFF: It's just a question of what kind of reforms we make to it, and here it won't surprise people that the old adage of where you stand depends on where you sit has resonance.

LUCAS: This month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats made clear where they stand. In a letter to Congress, they called the program their top legislative priority, and they want just one change. They want it reauthorized on a permanent basis. That's unlikely to pass muster on Capitol Hill where lawmakers are considering several possible changes. One big question is whether the FBI should be allowed to search the program's database for information on Americans suspected of a crime even when that crime is not related to national security. Neema Singh Guliani is with the ACLU.

NEEMA SINGH GULIANI: This has really led to shock on the part of some lawmakers who have proposed saying that unless the government gets probable cause warrants, they shouldn't be able to search through Section 702 information looking for details about Americans because this information, remember, is all collected without a warrant from the get-go.

LUCAS: The FBI says that would severely slow down their investigations. As for the intelligence agencies' desire to have the program renewed permanently, Hennessey of the Brookings Institution says there are good reasons to include an expiration date, also known as a sunset provision.

HENNESSEY: Most of what occurs in the intelligence community occurs in secret, and so having these sunset provisions is a way to force a public conversation that wouldn't exist otherwise. And it allows the public to have insight and buy-in to programs, things that the government is doing on their behalf that they might not have absent those kind of periodic conversations.

LUCAS: Congress, the intelligence agencies and the public are all having that conversation now. The outcome will determine whether they have it again. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKALPEL'S "SIMPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.