Defending Rights & Dissent Backs Bill to Rein In Foreign Intelligence Surveillance

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In the name of gathering foreign intelligence and combatting international terrorism, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are granted sweeping surveillance powers with little oversight. Such powers are not only ripe for abuse, we’ve seen them repeatedly abused. The high profile case of Carter Page is only the most recent example. 

That’s why Defending Rights & Dissent is supporting the Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act (SAPRA), a bi-partisan bill introduced in the Senate by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Daines (R-MT), and in the House by Reps. Lofgren (D-CA), Davidson (R-OH), Gaetz (R- FL), Jayapal (D-WA), Blumenauer (D-OR), and Yoho (R-FL). This bill would be a crucial first step (but by no means the last step) in reining in these abusive surveillance powers. If passed, SAPRA would amend a number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorities, including §215 of the Patriot Act.

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While we would like to see §215 sunsetted, SAPRA reins in surveillance authorities beyond those included in §215, authorities that would not be restricted by a straight-up sunset.

These important reforms include requiring a warrant in the foreign intelligence context to collect geolocation data, internet browsing and search history, or any other situation in which a warrant would be required in a criminal context. This will help make sure that §215 of the Patriot Act is not used as a run around to getting a warrant. SAPRA would ensure that FISA is the only way to gather US persons communications information from US telecom providers, making sure the intelligence agencies are not circumventing FISA’s privacy protections. It would also for the first time create a sunset provision on National Security Letters, meaning Congress would have to periodically debate whether to reauthorize this authority.  

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The bill revokes authority for the call detail record program exposed by Ed Snowden. The government could only use §215 for records that directly or indirectly relate to an agent of a foreign power or suspected agent of a foreign power, eliminating the vague authority to collect records that are merely “relevant” to an investigation. And information collected under §215 can only be used in court in cases involving national security. Defendants would have to be given notice that the government was seeking to use §215 information against them. The government would not be able to use “parallel construction” to obscure the origins of the evidence. The bill would mandate an investigation of the use of First Amendment-protected activities, race, ethnicity, national origin, and religious affiliation in Section 215 applications.

The most notorious abuse of §215 was uncovered when Edward Snowden exposed to the world that the NSA was engaged in bulk collection of metadata. The USA Freedom Act, passed in 2016,supposedly parred this program down, but what replaced it, the call details record program, still allowed for incredibly broad and unconstitutional collection of U.S. personrecords. In 2018, for example, we know the the government collected 434 million records relating to over 19 million phone identifiers. This is in spite of only having target!. Given its ineffectiveness, the NSA has supposedly ceased this program. But they retain the legal authority for it. That is why SAPRA would repeal that authority so this abusive program could never be restarted.

We recognize that these are just first steps. Even if passed, there would still be a long way to go in fighting back against abusive surveillance. However, it is a rare chance that we get to work for legislation to rein in the surveillance state, as opposed to pushing back against yet another expansion of it.