Republican pushes warrantless surveillance of US citizens

Gaza protest
“If any lawmakers were still on the fence and waiting for a smoking gun, THIS IS IT,” said one advocate of reforming Section 702. Jewish opponents of Israel’s Gaza War protested outside the Brooklyn residence of US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on October 13, 2023. Photo by Jewish Voice for Peace.

‘Disturbing’: intel chair used Schumer protests to push warrantless spying

by Jessica Corbett — Common Dreams

Privacy advocates issued fresh calls for changes to a historically abused US spying program on Tuesday after Wired reported that a top Republican congressman privately tried using peaceful protests as proof of the need to block long-demanded reforms.

“If you care about the First Amendment, please stop everything and read this Wired article,” Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, said on social media, sharing the piece.

Wired‘s Dell Cameron obtained a pair of presentation slides and spoke with multiple GOP staffers who attended a December 11 meeting with Representative Mike Turner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).

“This is ice in the heart of our democracy.”

The meeting was about competing legislation to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows warrantless surveillance targeting noncitizens located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information, but also sweeps up Americans’ data—and has been misused, particularly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. One of the bills would require the FBI to get a warrant before accessing US citizens’ communications.

Turner—who opposes the bill with that and other reforms—reportedly displayed the slides about 15 minutes into the meeting, which latest over an hour. The first shows a photo of opponents of Israel’s genocidal US-backed war on the Gaza Strip protesting outside the Brooklyn residence of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). It does not note that the October 13 action was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace.

The second slide features a social media post from Washington Free Beacon staff writer Matthew Foldi that contains misinformation suggesting Hamas—which governs Gaza and is designated as a terrorist group by the US government—was tied to a November demonstration at the Democratic leader’s residence. The slides do not make clear that they were different events.

“At the outset of the presentation, he’s running through slides, making his case for why 702 reauthorization is needed,” one senior Republican aide told Wired about Turner’s presentation. “Then he throws up that photo. The framing was: ‘Here are protesters outside of Chuck Schumer’s house. We need to be able to use 702 to query these people.'”

As Cameron detailed:

Jeff Naft, the HPSCI spokesperson, says the purpose of the slides was to illustrate that, even if the protesters did have ties to Hamas, they would “not be subject to surveillance” under the 702 program. “702 is not used to target protestors,” he says. “702 is used on foreign terrorist organizations, like Hamas. Chairman Turner’s presentation was a distinction exercise to explain the difference between a US person and Hamas.”

Wired’s sources, who are not authorized to discuss closed-door briefings and requested anonymity to do so, describe this as a conflation of two separate issues—a tactic, they say, that has become commonplace in the debate over the program’s future. “Yes, it’s true, you cannot ‘target’ protesters under 702,” one aide, a legislative director for a Republican lawmaker, says. “But that doesn’t mean the FBI doesn’t still have the power to access those emails or listen to their calls if it wants.”

In response to Wired’s reporting, Goitein—who was quoted in the piece—said on social media that “if any lawmakers were still on the fence and waiting for a smoking gun, THIS IS IT. Turner has made the stakes crystal clear. A vote to reauthorize Section 702 without a warrant requirement is a vote to allow the FBI to keep tabs on protesters exercising [First Amendment] rights.”

“HPSCI leaders are reportedly trying to persuade congressional leaders to slip a Section 702 reauthorization into one of the upcoming funding bills,” she pointed out. “Lawmakers must be given the opportunity to vote on Section 702 reforms, including a warrant requirement and other critical protections for Americans’ civil liberties. Our First Amendment rights depend on it.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) abruptly delayed action on Section 702 last month after Turner announced that the HPSCI had provided members of Congress with “information concerning a serious national security threat,” which news outlets reported was that Russia has made alarming progress on a space-based nuclear weapon designed to target US satellites. Critics called it a ploy by the chair to force through the spying program and demanded his immediate resignation.

Among the groups that pressured Turner to step down last month was Demand Progress, a longtime supporter of Section 702 reforms whose policy director, Sean Vitka, was also quoted in Wired’s piece and issued a statement about the “disturbing” revelations.

“This is ice in the heart of our democracy,” Vitka said. “Americans’ right to protest is sacred, and all the more critical given the political volatility 2024 is certain to produce. As intelligence agencies and congressional intelligence committees mislead the public about what’s at stake in this fight for privacy, Chairman Turner has been secretly selling his colleagues on backdoor searches of Americans as a way to help the FBI spy on protesters without so much as a court order.”

Calling for “a forceful response” from Schumer, Johnson, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), he argued that “Congress must stop letting the House Intelligence Committee dictate its agenda by secretly vetoing any meaningful reform. In the coming weeks, Congress has the opportunity to enact meaningful privacy protections that would protect protesters and all people in the United States from warrantless surveillance, specifically by closing the backdoor search and data broker loopholes.”

Jeramie Scott, senior counsel and director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, also weighed in on the reporting.

Americans exercising their constitutional right to protest have a right to be free from warrantless surveillance. There should be no suggestion that foreign intelligence authorities can be used to target protestors; that would be counter to our core American values,” Scott said. “This discussion is one more example of why Congress must pass a warrant requirement to ensure that these searches are not subject to abuse.


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