Surveillance Battle in House Focuses on Number of U.S. Citizens Affected

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday began the process of examining potential changes to a foreign intelligence-gathering program, with the panel’s top Democrat saying a key concern is how many American citizens are targeted by the law.

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and ranking member John Conyers (Mich.) gave varying levels of support to reforming Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law that allows for the surveillance of foreigners reasonably believed to be outside of the United States, while forbidding intelligence officials from surveilling Americans.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Goodlatte said that while the intelligence community has labeled Section 702 as the “most important tool in battling terrorism,” it has been criticized as an “overly broad” program that collects U.S. citizens’ communications “without sufficient legal process.”

“We must ensure that our protection doesn’t come at the expense of cherished liberty,” Goodlatte said, adding that strong national security tools and civil liberties “can and must coexist.”

The hearing, which included a classified session with representatives from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, is the first step in a “detailed, thorough and careful examination” of the law, Goodlatte said. A public hearing followed the classified portion.

The issue of how many U.S. citizens get their communications collected under the law, known as “incidental” collection, is central to the debate as the intelligence agencies seek a reauthorization of the statute in Congress. Conyers said committee members “require that estimate” and they won’t “simply take the government’s word on the size of so-called ‘incidental’ collection.”

During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Dan Coats’ nomination to be the next director of national intelligence, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sought a commitment from the former Indiana senator that he would provide the Senate Intelligence Committee with the number of Americans affected by Section 702 spying.

Coats said he would try his “best” to see if he could comply with that request.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the Trump administration supports renewing the law without any changes, citing an unnamed White House official.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.