The White House and US intelligence community on Wednesday said they backed making permanent a law that allows for the collection of digital communications of foreigners overseas and that pass through US phone or internet providers, escalating a fight in Congress over privacy and security.
“We cannot allow adversaries abroad to cloak themselves in the legal protections we extend to Americans,” White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Times on Wednesday.
Fourteen Republican senators, including every Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, are backing a bill introduced on Tuesday that would make part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act known as Section 702 permanent.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, speaking on behalf of other intelligence leaders, told the panel on Wednesday the statute should be made permanent, saying it was necessary to keep the United States and its allies safe from national security threats.
A bloc of conservative senators support that move, setting the stage for what is likely to be a contentious debate with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives who want transparency and oversight reforms to Section 702 and a limit on searches of US communications.
The statute, which allows the National Security Agency a wide berth in the collection of foreigners’ digital communications, normally comes with a “sunset” clause roughly every five years to allow lawmakers to reconsider its impact on privacy and civil liberties.
Privacy advocates panned the push to make Section 702 permanent, arguing that regular reviews of the law were necessary to conduct appropriate oversight and prevent potential abuses.
“After months of criticizing the government for allegedly spying on his presidential campaign, President Trump is now hypocritically endorsing a bill that would make permanent the NSA authority that is used to spy on Americans without a warrant,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Reuters reported in March that the Trump administration supported renewal of Section 702 without any changes, citing an unnamed White House official, but it was not clear at the time whether it wanted the law made permanent.