Sessions pushes back on proposed House surveillance reform

Jeff Sessions DOJ official photo 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn't want FBI agents to have to get a warrant to search spy databases for info on Americans

Congress is considering changes to the way domestic law enforcement agencies access surveillance data collected by America's spy agencies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told lawmakers on Oct. 18 that the administration was "open" to some reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act but rejected a proposal made in recent legislation to impose warrant requirements on the FBI when searching information about U.S persons.

Testifying at an Oct. 18 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sessions said the authorities granted under Section 702 of the FISA law are vital to the national security interests of the United States.

"It would reduce our ability to identity terrorist acts and potential acts before they happen," said Sessions. "[Section] 702 has proven its worth and courts have upheld it. It has the most rigorous oversight procedures of any act in existence today and it enables us to focus on terrorists abroad and to identify those who could be threats to us."

However, Sessions did not insist, as he did in a Sept. 11 letter, that Congress pass a "clean" reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act without any reforms. When asked by Sen. Chuck Grassely (R-Iowa) if there was any way to tweak the law to provide greater transparency around its use by intelligence and domestic law enforcement agencies, Sessions indicated that the administration would not rule out the possibility.

One reform the DOJ will not be supporting is a provision contained in a recent House bill that would require the FBI to obtain a warrant before searching Section 702 intelligence databases for information about U.S. persons.

Though the law is designed to target foreign individuals, the NSA has acknowledged that an unspecified number of communications from U.S. citizens are also swept up in the dragnet when they communicate with foreign targets. The FBI is then able to search through that information for domestic law enforcement activities without requiring a warrant, something critics have called a "backdoor" loophole around the strictures of the Fourth Amendment.

Sessions suggested that those communications were lawfully collected and that imposing warrant restrictions was "not practical."

Such intercepts, Sessions said, originate "abroad by people who are not protected by the U.S. Constitution and I do not believe that we could carry out the responsibilities that we’re expected to do with a warrant requirement for any of the 702-type material."

The warrant requirement, included in a bill from a bipartisan group on the House Judiciary Committee, faces an uncertain future in Congress. In addition to administration opposition, some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are looking for an update that is closer to current law.

While the bill imposes various new restrictions, including warrants for searches of U.S. persons, A coalition of over 40 privacy advocacy groups came out against the measure in an Oct. 13 letter, arguing it does not go far enough in protecting civil liberties.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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