Senate Intelligence Committee Expands FBI NSL Powers With Secret Amendment To Secret Intelligence Bill
from the you'll-find-out-about-the-additions-when-you're-told-you-can't-talk dept
The annual intelligence authorization is under way, with the Senate deciding how much money the nation's spy agencies will receive next year, along with anything else they can slip in while no one's looking. The entire discussion takes place behind closed doors, so there's very little stopping the Intelligence Committee's many surveillance fans from amending the bill to increase intelligence agencies' powers.
A provision snuck into the still-secret text of the Senate’s annual intelligence authorization would give the FBI the ability to demand individuals’ email data and possibly web-surfing history from their service providers without a warrant and in complete secrecy.
If passed, the change would expand the reach of the FBI’s already highly controversial national security letters.
The spy bill passed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, with the provision in it. The lone no vote came from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who wrote in a statement that one of the bill’s provisions “would allow any FBI field office to demand email records without a court order, a major expansion of federal surveillance powers.”
Wyden did not disclose exactly what the provision would allow, but his spokesperson suggested it might go beyond email records to things like web-surfing histories and other information about online behavior. “Senator Wyden is concerned it could be read that way,” Keith Chu said.
The FBI's history of abusing NSLs is well-documented. These letters allow the agency to route around judicial oversight by chanting "national security" while composing their requests. (Bonus feature: recipients are forbidden from talking about them... indefinitely.) Increasing the FBI's access with no corresponding increase in oversight is definitely not a good idea, considering it has never shown interest in self-restraint.
The FBI historically has not had access to email records via NSLs, although it did spend several years doing exactly that before being shut down by the DOJ. It obviously wants that access again and FBI Director James Comey claims the only thing standing between it and the access it always thought it had is a "typo."
If this secret amendment passes along with the authorization bill, it would weaken attempts to reform the ECPA -- the 1986 law that gives the government warrantless access to emails and other online documents more than 180 days old. But rather than fix the Senate intelligence authorization bill, legislators are looking to carve a hole in the recently (and unanimously) passed Email Privacy Act.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is expected to offer an amendment that would mirror the provision in the intelligence bill.
Privacy advocates warn that adding it to the broadly supported reform effort would backfire.
“If [the provision] is added to ECPA, it’ll kill the bill,” Gabe Rottman, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s freedom, security, and technology project, wrote in an email to The Intercept. “If it passes independently, it’ll create a gaping loophole. Either way, it’s a big problem and a massive expansion of government surveillance authority.”
The FBI should be sending out fruit baskets to the Senate Intelligence Committee for both expanding its surveillance reach and undercutting a much-needed reform effort. Secret laws made by secretive committees during closed-doors sessions doesn't seem very "American," but much like the super-secretive NSLs the FBI loves so much, the routine invocation of "national security" tends to ward off the scrutiny this process desperately needs.