The intelligence community held two classified briefings for House members at the National Security Agency this week, so that lawmakers could see a demonstration and learn more about intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, according to an invitation obtained by CNN.
FISA Section 702, the law the NSA uses to track the emails and phone calls of non-US citizens, is controversial because it sometimes incidentally collects communications of US citizens, too. The law expires at the end of the year, and Congress is considering several changes to intelligence collection before extending the law.
The briefings come as President Donald Trump’s administration is pushing Congress to reauthorize the program without changes. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats wrote to congressional leaders on Monday, arguing that intelligence gathering under FISA has sufficient checks in place to protect against government overreach.
“Section 702 provides a comprehensive regime of oversight by all three branches of government to protect the privacy and civil liberties of US persons,” they wrote. “The law requires the intelligence community to follow court approved targeting and minimization procedures designed to ensure compliance with the law’s targeting restrictions and the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”
The classified briefings on Tuesday and Wednesday at the NSA’s Ft. Meade, Maryland, headquarters, which is less than an hour from the Capitol, included a “live demonstration” of the tools the NSA uses for its intelligence gathering under FISA’s Section 702.
“The Intelligence Community’s FISA Section 702 experts will give an overview of the legal and technological foundations of the authority, share examples of how the authority is used and its value, and describe oversight of the authority,” the invitation says. “NSA analysts will present a live demonstration of the SIGINT (signals intelligence) process using analytic tools that can only be seen at NSA.”
The round trip for the briefing lasted just under four hours, according to the invitation, and members were shuttled to and from the NSA on buses.
The issue of US citizens getting caught up in NSA surveillance data has been one theme of the House intelligence committee’s Russia probe, with Chairman Devin Nunes of California accusing Obama administration officials of improperly “unmasking” the identities of members of the Trump team.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that an emerging deal in the House Judiciary Committee would place new limits on Section 702, including requiring FBI agents to obtain warrants before searching intercepted messages and making permanent a ban on collecting emails where a foreign target is mentioned in the text, but did not send or receive the message. The NSA voluntarily stopped collecting this data earlier this year.