A Controversial Surveillance Program Sparks Uproar in Civil Rights Circles

Lawmakers in the United States are facing a wave of warnings from various civil society organizations urging them not to yield to the efforts of certain members of Congress who are attempting to thwart a much-anticipated discussion on the future of a potent yet divisive US surveillance program.

House and Senate party leaders are gearing up to introduce a bill on Wednesday that will outline the spending priorities of the US military and its $831 billion budget for the coming year. Meanwhile, rumors are swirling on Capitol Hill about reported plans by House speaker Mike Johnson to amend the bill in order to prolong Section 702, a far-reaching surveillance program that has drawn criticism from a significant number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers advocating for privacy reforms.

The initial report on the rumors, published by WIRED on Monday, cited senior congressional aides who are familiar with the ongoing negotiations regarding the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Separate versions of the NDAA were passed by the House and Senate earlier this summer.

This morning, over 80 civil rights and grassroots organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Color of Change, Muslims for Just Futures, Stop AAPI Hate, and United We Dream, jointly issued a statement opposing any attempts to extend the 702 program through the NDAA. The statement, which is expected to reach all 535 members of Congress this afternoon, asserts that the failure to reform contentious aspects of the program, such as federal agents’ ability to access Americans’ communications without a warrant, poses an “alarming threat to civil rights.” It also condemns any potential use of must-pass legislation to extend the program, stating that doing so would betray the communities that have been most frequently and unjustly targeted by these agencies and warrantless surveillance powers in general.

“As you’re aware, this extremely controversial warrantless surveillance authority is set to expire at the end of the year, but will continue to operate as it does currently until April, as government officials have recognized for many years,” the groups remark in their statement.

Mike Johnson and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. Similarly, the leadership of the House and Senate armed services committees did not provide a response.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act grants authorization to the US government, particularly the US National Security Agency, to monitor the communications of foreign citizens believed to be located overseas. Often, these communications—such as texts, calls, emails, and other internet traffic—incidentally involve Americans, whom the government is prohibited from directly targeting. Certain interception methods, particularly those that tap into the internet’s backbone, may make it extremely challenging to completely separate foreign communications from domestic ones.

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