WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee set the stage for a fight with the White House by pushing a bill that would require law enforcement to get a court order before viewing intelligence collected by the National Security Agency.
The bipartisan legislation, which is set to be formally introduced Friday, would renew a highly contentious section of a surveillance law due to expire at the end of the year with revisions that lawmakers say will safeguard civil liberties. But the Trump administration, which has pushed for a renewal of the law without changes, is expected to oppose the measure.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have argued for broad authority to spy on the electronic communications of foreigners located outside the United States. The information yields intelligence that helps prevent terrorist plots, cyber attacks and other threats, according to the officials, who last month said more than 106,000 foreigners abroad are being targeted currently — up from about 89,000 four years ago.
But privacy advocates have pushed back, saying that information about Americans who are communicating with these foreign targets is also being incidentally swept up in the electronic dragnets and needs to be protected.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the committee chairman, said Thursday that the legislation creates a new framework of protections and transparency requirements to ensure that the government's use of the surveillance authority "accords with principles enshrined in our Constitution that protect individual liberty."
The bill would reauthorize for another six years section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which lapses on Dec. 31 without congressional action.
In response to the privacy concerns, the bill would direct the FBI and other law enforcement agencies seeking evidence of a crime to secure a court order based on probable cause "to look at the content of communications" in the 702 program database, according to a summary of the bill. Exceptions would be granted when lives or safety are threatened, or in cases where a previous probable cause-based court order has been issued.
The legislation also seeks to address allegations that the Obama administration had sought to improperly determine the identities of Trump campaign officials in intelligence reports. Revealing the identities of American citizens or legal permanent residents mentioned in intelligence reports is known as unmasking.
Agencies would be required to keep records of when and who queried the database, according to the legislation, and unmasking requests would have to be retained so Congress can conduct oversight.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the bipartisan bill doesn't go nearly far enough. The organization said in a statement that while a warrant would be necessary for law enforcement agencies engaged in criminal investigations, the bill continues to allow access to the 702 program database for broad "foreign intelligence" purposes without a warrant.
"Those worried that current or future presidents will use Section 702 to spy on political opponents, surveil individuals based on false claims that their religion makes them a national security threat, or chill freedom of speech should be concerned that these reforms do not go far enough," said Neema Singh Guliani, the ACLU's legislative counsel.
Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner