| WASHINGTON, March 20
WASHINGTON, March 20 Some Republican lawmakers
appear to be reassessing whether to make changes to a
surveillance law that allows broad snooping of Internet
communications, citing concerns over the handling of classified
intercepts after leaks of conversations between Russian
officials and American associates of President Donald Trump.
The law, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, allows U.S. intelligence agencies to collect
vast amounts of communications from foreigners, but often
incidentally scoops up the communications of Americans.
Until recently most Republicans have been quick to defend
Section 702 and Congress had been expected to renew it without
major changes before it expires at the end of the year.
Though long criticized by privacy advocates, a new front of
potential opposition to Section 702 has emerged as Republicans
sputter about what they view as politically motivated leaks by
the agencies amid probes of any collusion between the Russian
government and Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign.
The tensions burst into full view on Monday at a U.S. House
of Representatives' Intelligence Committee hearing, during which
FBI Director James Comey confirmed his agency was investigating
Republican Representative Tom Rooney told Comey and National
Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, who also testified, that
concern over leaks would undermine support for Section 702, even
though it appears to not have led directly to the leaks
Republicans are fuming over.
"When we try to retain this tool this year and try to
convince some of our colleagues that this is really important
for national security and somebody in the intelligence community
says, 'You know what, the hell with it, I'm going to release
this person’s name because I'm going to get something out of
it,' we're all going to be hurt by that," Rooney said as he
removed his glasses in apparent exasperation.
While Democrats on the committee focused their questioning
of Comey and Rogers on whether Trump aides may have suspicious
ties to Russian officials, Republicans repeatedly redirected the
conversation to focus on whether enough safeguards were in place
to prevent leaks about Americans.
U.S. intelligence agencies accused Moscow of attempts to
influence the election in favor of Republican Trump, in part by
hacking emails of Democratic Party operatives. Russia denies the
allegations. Trump has criticized the intelligence agencies and
has denied he has had anything to do with Russia.
Section 702 surveillance is intended to apply only to
foreigners living overseas. Elaborate rules govern incidental
coverage of Americans, but the information can sometimes be used
nonetheless. Privacy advocates have said that communications
belonging to as many as tens of millions of Americans could be
caught up in the searches.
Despite the concern about leaks, a White House official told
Reuters earlier this month that the Trump administration favored
a reauthorization this year of the expiring portions of the FISA
without any changes to address privacy concerns.
On Monday, several Republicans sought to directly link media
reports revealing that Trump's former national security advisor,
Michael Flynn, exchanged calls during the presidential
transition with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak about
sanctions to the debate about Section 702.
Flynn had told Vice President Mike Pence he did not speak to
Kislyak about sanctions, an assertion contradicted by news
articles, which cited transcripts of surveillance intercepts and
led to Flynn's ouster.
Comey and Rogers both said that Section 702 surveillance was
unrelated to how intercepts of Flynn's calls were collected or
leaked to the press, and that such information would have most
likely been gathered under a different part of FISA or a wholly
"That is a distinction that doesn't make a difference to
people watching on television," Representative Trey Gowdy
responded, adding that renewal of Section 702 was "in jeopardy
if we don't get this resolved."
The hearing echoed conversations that took place during a
closed meeting with senior intelligence officials this month
with the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to take
the lead on writing legislation that will seek reform and
renewal of Section 702.
Two sources familiar with the meeting said several lawmakers
sought clarity on how many intelligence officials had access to
classified surveillance information but were frustrated by the
lack of clear answers.
Rogers said Monday that 20 people at NSA, including himself,
possessed the authority to "unmask" Americans whose
communications are ensnared via foreign intelligence programs. A
select few officials at other agencies also have the authority,
including some at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the
Department of Justice and the CIA.
Section 702 enables sweeping surveillance programs known as
Prism and Upstream, which were revealed publicly in 2013 by
former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Prism gathers messaging data from Alphabet Inc's Google
, Facebook Inc , Microsoft Corp, Apple
Inc and other major tech companies that is sent to and
from a foreign target under surveillance. Upstream allows the
NSA to copy Web traffic flowing along the internet backbone
located inside the United States and search that data.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Grant