Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wanted the answer to a basic question on Thursday: How many Americans does the United States government currently spy on?
The question arose ahead of a vote over reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a 1978 law permitting the government to spy on correspondence between Americans and foreign individuals. Wyden, leading the charge to challenge the reauthorization, argues that the “Senate cannot say that we passed the smell test with respect to vigorous oversight if we don’t have some sense of how many Americans … are being swept up under the legislation.”
A number of FISA provisions passed in recent years are set to expire at the end of this year, and as Politico reported, “[Wyden] has placed a hold on the bill as he seeks information from the federal authorities, who have told Wyden in the past that they can’t deliver that data [on how many Americans are caught up in the surveillance dragnet]. And Wyden said this week that he’ll maintain that hold unless the Senate allows a vote on his amendments to introduce new legal checks and transparency rules to the law.”
Wyden’s amendments would add privacy protections to the act, under which U.S. officials currently have the authority to conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists abroad without a court order. Officials can simply obtain court orders from the secretive FISA court, which do not require probable cause, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As the Guardian noted, “Wyden’s amendment would require the NSA to put a number on how many Americans have been affected. His Oregon colleague, Jeff Merkley, proposed an amendment that would require the secret court that reviews surveillance requests, known as the FISA court, to inform the public when it makes ‘important rulings of law’.”
However, outgoing chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Dianne Feinsten, D.-Calif., defended the surveillance practices permitted under FISA’s current provisions. “I don’t think there’s any program that has more vigorous oversight,” she said in response to Wyden Thursday. Feinstein said that in regards to stopping domestic terrorist attacks in recent years, the surveillance program “has worked,” noting that some of the 100 arrests made over the past four years to prevent attacks on U.S. soil have been made based on intelligence gleaned under FISA.
According to the Guardian, “National Security Agency whistleblower Bill Binney has estimated that the agency has ‘assembled’ 20 trillion transactions between U.S. citizens.”
As Wyden put it Thursday, “I think, when you talk about oversight, and you can’t even get a rough estimate of how many law-abiding Americans had their communications swept up by this law … the idea of robust oversight, really ought to be called toothless oversight if you don’t have that kind of information.”