Senate hears from IC nominees as spy authority renewal is set to pass

Shutterstock image (by Bruce Rolff): eyes in a binary tunnel. 

President Donald Trump's nominees for two oversight roles in the intelligence community offered support of reauthorizing the government's surveillance powers and cooperation with investigations into Russian electoral interference during a smooth confirmation hearing.

Michael Atkinson, nominated to serve as inspector general of the intelligence community, and the Jason Klitenic, the administration's pick for general counsel for the director of national intelligence, touched on Section 702 reauthorization, investigations into foreign electoral interference, as well as how to remedy past oversight challenges during their joint hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Jan. 17.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act permits the warrantless collection and review of communications of Americans who have some link to a foreign surveillance target.

Klitenic, a former deputy general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security and deputy associate attorney general at the Justice Department, called Section 702 "maybe the most important tool... in the toolkit of the intelligence community and law enforcement community."

As it stands, the authorities afforded to spy agencies are set to expire with the current shutdown deadline on Jan. 19.

The House passed a bill reauthorizing 702 authorities by a vote of 256-164 on Jan. 11. A motion to end debate on the measure squeaked by in the Senate by a vote of 60 to 38. A vote to pass the bill is expected soon.

Civil libertarians are complaining that the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 failed to include safeguards and protections on the collection of information on Americans.

"Many innocent Americans get caught up in that," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in remarks before the vote.

"Despite the ample evidence that these authorities have been abused, the bill fails to meaningfully restrict the government’s ability to unlawfully sift through the private emails, messages, and other digital communications of individuals without probable cause or approval from a judge," said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

At the confirmation hearing, Klitenic affirmed his support for reauthorizing the 702 authorities. When asked about the concerns over civil liberties, he deferred to previous court rulings. "The courts have reviewed it, and each court has found it to be constitutional," he said.

Atkinson, currently serving as a Justice Department attorney, testified, "I know the Department [of Justice] feels very strongly about reauthorizing Section 702," He added, however, that "I'm not an expert on 702... I don't know all the challenges associated with it."

Klitenic testified that his experience at DHS and DOJ "involving counterterrorism, cyber security, data privacy and government-wide information sharing initiatives" will carry over to the legal role for the intelligence community.

Atkinson said his "first objective" as IG would be to get the right people in place -- and the wrong people out. He also testified to the necessity of enforcing strong whistleblower protections "without compromising national security and without retaliation."

The role of the central watchdog for the intelligence community requires coordination between the 16 different agencies.

"There is a broad view... the IC IG is not currently functioning as effectively as Congress intended," said Atkinson. "I think the challenge is balancing out the autonomy of action the individual IGs need to have to fulfill their duties and responsibilities with the unity of effort that we'll all need to have collectively, so we that we maximize our efficiency and effectiveness."

To help coordinate oversight, Atkinson said he would "welcome" help from the Government Accountability Office in conducting audits.

"It makes perfect sense to make use of GAO since they have subject matter experts in auditing," he said. "I see them as a force multiplier, and I would use them as much as possible."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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