Sessions: Surveillance Reform Could Be 'Exceedingly Damaging' to National Security

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Alex Brandon/AP

Getting a warrant before searching through information collected under Section 702 authorities would be burdensome, the attorney general told lawmakers.

House lawmakers’ latest attempt to update one of the federal government’s most controversial spying programs “could be exceedingly damaging” to national security, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said the bipartisan USA Liberty Act, which would update Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, could delay investigations by forcing law enforcement to obtain probable cause warrants before searching 702 information.

Section 702 has been a point of contention since its details were revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden in 2013. The authority targets foreigners outside the U.S. but can scoop up the emails and text messages of Americans who communicate with those targets. The intelligence community has never revealed the number of Americans whose information was incidentally collected, despite repeated requests from lawmakers such as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“I’m worried about additional burdens, particularly a warrant requirement,” Sessions said.

The USA Liberty Act passed the House Judiciary Committee last week and is likely to come to the House floor for vote in the coming weeks. Authorities under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expire at the end of the year.

A Senate bill to renew the spying authorities, which similarly does not require a warrant for law enforcement searches, passed that chamber’s intelligence committee in October.

When pressed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., whether he wanted to risk authorities under the controversial Section 702 expiring, Sessions said no, but added that FISA “as passed and has been reauthorized is constitutional. It works.”

The USA Liberty Act would prohibit the government, in most cases, from using information collected from Americans to support a criminal investigation without a probable cause warrant.

The bill would allow intelligence agencies to continue to query databases for data on U.S. citizens without a warrant, as long as they don’t turn that data over to law enforcement. The bill also requires documentation when officials “unmask” a person’s identity in those otherwise anonymized data sets.

The debate between privacy advocates and security hawks over the legislation is likely to heat up in the coming weeks. Sessions joins other top Justice officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, in advocating for Congress to reauthorize Section 702.

White House Cybersecurity Adviser Rob Joyce cited the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shootings as an example of when law enforcement might wish to query the 702 database without the delay of obtaining a warrant. The comments came during a During a Defense One Summit interview.