Recently, the political landscape has been abuzz with concerns about Donald Trump's potential misuse of presidential powers for personal vendettas, intensifying bipartisan efforts in Congress to reform surveillance laws. Trump's alarming remarks about desiring to be a dictator and his intentions to purge the country of "radical left thugs" have alarmed many, including key Democrats in Congress.
This situation has given momentum to the longstanding initiative to revamp the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), particularly Section 702. This section has been controversial, as it allows intelligence agencies to collect overseas communication records of suspected terrorists and foreign agents without a warrant, often sweeping up Americans' data in the process.
Civil liberty advocates have long argued for a warrant before the FBI can access these records. Despite this, the FBI has admitted to multiple improper searches, violating its guidelines. The urgency for reform is heightened by the approaching expiration of the current law under Section 702 in April, following a short-term extension approved by the House and Senate.
This development opens a critical opportunity early next year for lawmakers to debate substantial changes to FISA. Notably, House Speaker Mike Johnson recently postponed votes on competing FISA bills, highlighting the contentious nature of the program's future.
Urgency for Surveillance Reform
The FBI's use of the Section 702 database, which it queries around 200,000 times annually, has been a point of contention. It's been utilized for various purposes, including investigating Black Lives Matter movement members and January 6 insurrection cases.
These actions have led to a diverse coalition of lawmakers advocating for increased oversight and tighter controls on surveillance authority. Chris Baumohl, a national security and intelligence surveillance law expert at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, notes that abuses under Section 702 have occurred under administrations from both parties, prompting a bipartisan push for reform.
The potential return of Trump to the presidency in 2025 has particularly alarmed Democrats, who fear an escalated misuse of surveillance powers. Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, expresses deep concerns about Trump's possible re-election, recalling his previous attempts to weaponize government agencies for personal gain.
Cross-Party Support for Reforms
Conversely, some Republicans have their reasons for supporting FISA reform, stemming from the FBI's handling of investigations into Trump's 2016 campaign and Russian intelligence. The controversy surrounding the FBI's surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign advisor, based on flawed justifications, has led to proposals for stringent reforms.
Representative Jim Jordan, a staunch Trump ally, backs a bill imposing new restrictions on the FBI, including Congressional oversight of FISA court proceedings and limitations on using news reports and political research in surveillance requests.
This bill also aims to prevent intelligence agencies from purchasing Americans' data from third-party brokers. Jayapal supports these reforms but emphasizes the urgency of Trump's candidacy, stressing the need for robust guardrails against potential abuses.
Closing Window for Reform
Amidst these developments, Congress faces a narrowing window for reform. With the House soon adjourning for the year, the opportunity for legislative action is diminishing. Jayapal expresses concern that FISA might be reauthorized without timely intervention without essential changes, potentially extending current powers into 2025.
Privacy experts, including Kia Hamadanchy from the ACLU, share these apprehensions, warning of the risks of unchecked surveillance powers in the wrong hands. The need for bipartisan action is evident, transcending political divides and uniting those concerned about government surveillance, whether it involves location data from gun shops or abortion clinics.
The push for FISA reform is a critical test of Congress's ability to protect Americans' data and ensure transparency and accountability in government surveillance practices. As Elizabeth Goitein from the Brennan Center for Justice points out, unchecked surveillance is a tool of autocrats, and curtailing these powers is vital for safeguarding democracy.