A coalition of rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the House Judiciary Committee Friday that it will not support the USA Liberty Act, the latest version of a surveillance reform bill meant to extend the federal government's spying authority under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
In a letter to the committee, the coalition of more than 40 organizations, including the NAACP and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said the bill needed to be bolstered to address concerns over the “backdoor search loophole.”
“The bill's most glaring deficiency is that it does not require a warrant to access content in cases where the primary purpose is to return foreign intelligence,” the group wrote, noting that “under this exception, the government would have free rein to search and access the content of religious organizations and civil society groups, Congressional staff, and other innocent Americans without a warrant simply if it asserted that the primary purpose was to gather information related to the policies of a foreign country.”
The coalition also took issue with the broad language of the bill, which it said “leaves room for the government to conduct queries and access content for law enforcement purposes without a warrant.”
The bill's consent and emergency exception are also overly broad. “For example, the emergency provision does not parallel analogous provisions in FISA and require imminence or that the government go back to the FISA court for a warrant after beginning the emergency surveillance,” the coalition said. “At the same time, the consent provision could be read to allow individuals who are not a party to a communication to consent to its access.”
Expressing concern that “the bill fails to require any court approval to access what it terms ‘noncontents' information,” the rights groups said that made the proposed law “at odds with current law, including the reforms passed as part of the USA Freedom Act, which recognized the need for a court order to access metadata.”
The coalition urged Congress to bring the language of the bill in line with Title III provisions, to clarify that “an independent judge—not the government—must make a finding of probable cause as part of the warrant process.”
Saying that the bill falls short of protecting Americans, Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the ACLU, in a statement, noted “the bill still allows the government to read emails, text messages, and other communications of Americans without a probable cause warrant or even a shred of evidence suggesting that the person has information necessary to protect against an imminent threat” and called for lawmakers to improve it.
Section 702 is set to expire at the end of 2017.