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Bipartisan group pushes for restrictions in FISA reauthorization

A group of House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle has agreed to support extending the FISA Amendments Act, the law authorizing warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency, through 2023. It is currently set to expire at the end of this year. In exchange for their support, the group will push for changes and restrictions on the law that would bring it more in line with general search procedures. The restrictions are opposed by the Trump administration.

The lawmakers include Jim Sensenbrenner, former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, current chair Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, and the ranking Democrat on the committee, John Conyers of Michigan. Their agreement to support a restricted renewal is apparently private but was reported to the New York Times by anonymous congressional officials.

Among the restrictions the group is seeking are:

  • A warrant requirement before the FBI could search the federal repository of intercepted messages for evidence regarding U.S. criminal suspects.
  • A ban on the collection of emails between two U.S. correspondents, even when the topic of the emails is a foreign target. (The NSA has voluntarily stopped collecting this but currently retains the ability to restart.)
  • A requirement that NSA officials certify they are seeking information for legitimate purposes when asking for the names of Americans to be unmasked in intelligence reports.

According to the New York Times, both the NSA and the Trump administration oppose the restrictions, which are currently being drafted into a bill. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked Congress to reauthorize the law without any changes. However, Chairman Goodlatte said the bill lacks the votes to pass the House without revision.

The FISA Amendments Act was originally passed in 2008 and replaced a warrantless surveillance program that had been put in place by the Bush Administration after Sept. 11, 2001. It authorizes the NSA to collect and monitor emails, phone calls and internet traffic involving at least one foreigner.

It was reauthorized in 2012, but in 2013 leaks by NSA intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and a number of later revelations called the legality and propriety of the program and other NSA activities into question. Some lawmakers worry about the degree of intrusion into Americans' lives that occurs when the NSA intercepts Americans' communications with foreigners.

In some cases, it has been alleged that the collection of such information, especially when it is shared with law enforcement, violates the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

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