Congress Kicks Surveillance Debate into 2018

Short extension of FISA snooping powers shoved into temporary spending bill.


Rand Paul and Ron Wyden
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

As 2017 comes to a close, Congress, still divided over how (or whether) to limit federal surveillance authorities, has kicked the can down the road to at least January 19.

As part of a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running for a few more weeks, Congress extended the deadline to decide what to do about Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments.

Section 702 grants the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) the authority to engage in covert, unwarranted surveillance of foreign targets overseas. It is a source of public controversy in recent years because it has become clear and public that the federal government has been using this authority to secretly collect data and communications from and about American citizens and using it as evidence for domestic crime investigations, without getting warrants and without citizens knowing it was happening.

Section 702 expires at the end of the year, or it would have if not for the continuing resolution passed right before Christmas. Before renewing Section 702, civil rights activists groups and privacy rights-oriented lawmakers want to make sure the law's text is reformed so that the use of unwarranted surveillance against American citizens is restricted.

But Congressional leadership, White House officials, and the intelligence community are reluctant to see any changes that might restrict surveillance powers. Right before the holiday, the House tried and failed to advance an absolutely terrible renewal bill that would have given the FBI and NSA formal permission to use unwarranted surveillance to investigate a whole bunch of domestic crimes in this law aimed at foreign targets.

That effort failed and this short-term renewal means the fight is far from over. Technically, the FBI and NSA say that they don't actually have to start winding down their surveillance until April, so there's still time to fight over how to reword the law (for information on which bills are currently in circulation, written in plain English, read here).

But the continuing resolution briefly postponed budget fights to keep the government open. There's still a very high likelihood that some sort of surveillance renewal could get jammed into a spending bill that gets passed with little discussion. Senators like Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) say they'll fight efforts to pass a Section 702 renewal without any debate in Congress. And they've put together the bill that best protects American citizens from unwarranted surveillance.

We thought this fight might be over by the end of the year, but it's going to keep going into 2018.