House Intel committee advances spy bill

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In a contentious Dec. 1 meeting, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence approved a bill to reauthorize the government's spying powers 13-8 on a party-line vote.

The bill would reauthorize the government's surveillance powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for another four years and expand the conditions under which the FBI and law enforcement could query the communications of U.S. persons.

The House Intelligence Committee's bill is one of at least five that have been introduced in Congress thus far to reauthorize Section 702. Congressional leaders have declined to endorse any of the bills proposed or schedule any floor votes, and members of Congress have begun openly predicting that reauthorization of the spying powers will be tacked onto must-pass legislation at the end of the year, when the 702 provisions are due to expire.

The House Intel bill contains language that would allow for the search of anyone engaging in "international malicious cyber activity." However, the specific definition in the bill is more broadly worded, including anyone who "seeks to compromise or impair the confidentiality, integrity, or availability" of computers, networks or software when the activity originates or is directed "in whole or in substantial part" by persons located outside of the United States.

Privacy hawks on both sides of the aisle are looking for warrant requirements for domestic law enforcement to access databases of information gleaned from international surveillance. The House Intel bill contains an optional warrant provision, but no requirement.

Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, released a joint statement asserting that their 702 reauthorization bill, the USA Liberty Act, is "the only bill that protects both national security and Americans' civil liberties, is the best and most viable proposal introduced to date, and would pass in the House of Representatives overwhelmingly if brought up for a vote."

Technology and civil liberties groups complained that the Intelligence Committee's bill would expand the scope of surveillance and permit the continued collection of information on Americans linked to foreign intelligence targets.

"The second this bill was exposed to public scrutiny, it became clear that it is the worst possible outcome for everyone's privacy," Robyn Greene, policy counsel and government affairs lead at New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in an emailed statement.

Democrats on the committee, led by ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) argued against the inclusion of a provision to alter the procedure of "unmasking" Americans caught up on international surveillance intercepts, specifically during the period of a presidential transition.

The provision requires requesters of an unmasking -- typically high-ranking national security officials -- to notify Congress and provide documentation as to whether they "know or believe" that the person in question is a member of the president-elect or vice president-elect transition team.

About the Author

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


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