WASHINGTON: An influential conservative bloc of Republican lawmakers on Thursday said it opposed renewal of an internet surveillance law unless major changes were made in how the US government collects and uses American data, reflecting disagreement within the majority party.
A week ago, President Donald Trump’s administration and 14 Republican US senators said they wanted the spying authority to be renewed without any changes before it expires at the end of the year.
Amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act adopted by Congress in 2008, including a controversial part known as Section 702, broadened the US government’s legal authority to conduct surveillance of phone calls, emails and other communications belonging to foreigners who live overseas.
US intelligence agencies and US allies consider the law vital to national security, but privacy advocates have criticized Section 702 for allowing the incidental collection of data belonging to an unknown number of Americans without a search warrant.
“Government surveillance activities under the FISA Amendments Act have violated Americans’ constitutionally protected rights,” the group of about three dozen lawmakers, known as the House Freedom Caucus, said in a statement. “We oppose any reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act that does not include substantial reforms to the government’s collection and use of Americans’ data.”
The caucus in the US House of Representatives has already had success in challenging the Trump White House and the Republican congressional leadership on other policy issues. It opposed legislation to overhaul the US healthcare system on grounds that it did not do enough to repeal former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, earning concessions on a bill that passed the House in May.
The intraparty dissent among Republicans in Congress over Section 702 resembles a debate that took place two years ago, when lawmakers disagreed sharply over whether to curtail a National Security Agency program that collected US call metadata in bulk – a practice exposed publicly by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
The dispute led to the brief expiration of the USA Patriot Act before lawmakers passed a law effectively terminating the bulk collection practice.
The extent of Section 702 spying was also revealed in disclosures by Snowden, prompting outrage internationally and embarrassing some US technology firms.
On Wednesday, a declassified court document, made public in response to lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation, revealed that an unidentified US technology company objected in 2014 to participating in a Section 702 program, but was ordered by a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to comply.