Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines will host a listening session on Thursday to hear from civil liberties groups about Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a powerful spying tool that’s scheduled to sunset at the end of 2023.
The event, which multiple attendees confirmed to CyberScoop, is the first major convening by the Biden administration to hear from reform-minded groups since the White House announced its support for renewing the authority in February.
The Washington Times first reported plans for the meeting and the invitation of the Cato Institute. CyberScoop confirmed separately that the meeting will include Demand Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Project on Government Oversight, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Democracy and Technology.
An invitation for the event said that other senior intelligence agency leaders would be in attendance. ODNI declined to name other agencies participating.
Section 702 of the FISA Act, which sunsets at the end of this year, is a powerful spying tool that allows intelligence agencies to collect the communications of non-U.S. persons abroad whose communications transit U.S. telecommunications systems. The Biden administration and members of the intelligence community have painted the tool as essential to the nation’s security, including combatting cyberattacks and the fentanyl crisis.
However, the program’s incidental collection of Americans’ data, which can then be searched by the FBI, has raised oversight concerns from civil liberties advocates and many lawmakers due to repeated abuse. As a result, lawmakers in both the Senate and House have said they won’t reauthorize the spying tool without significant reforms.
So far, officials have been vague about what if any reforms to Section 702 they would be willing to discuss. In July, administration officials concurred with a report from an independent group of presidential advisers that a warrant requirement would be “burdensome.” Civil liberties groups have challenged the administration’s reluctance, saying that it has yet to provide any proof that a warrant requirement would harm national security.
Advocates who are pushing for reforms say that the administration’s reluctance to come to the table has become a liability for reauthorization and has held back discussions on the Hill.
“It seems like the government wants a sunset of Section 702 before they show up with any actual reforms,” said one source familiar with the conversation. “If they were serious about this, this conversation would have happened six months ago.”
A source with knowledge of the situation said that administration officials have continued to lobby members of Congress behind closed doors for a “clean reauthorization,” meaning no reforms.
“I think the big question going into this meeting is what … the administration means when it says it’s pro-reform?” said the source.
The Biden administration faces an uphill battle for renewal in Congress where both leading Republicans and Democrats have expressed reluctance to renew the authority without significant reforms. Comprehensive reform legislation including Section 702 is expected in the coming weeks.