PINDROP BLOG

Expansion of National Security Letter Use Dropped From Intelligence Bill

A controversial provision in the Intelligence Authorization Act that would have granted the FBI the ability to access Americans’ browsing and email records without a warrant has been removed from the bill.

The section of the appropriations bill for the various intelligence agencies had drawn criticism from civil liberties groups and lawmakers who opposed the expansion of powers for the FBI. The change would have enabled the bureau to use a National Security Letter to demand communications transactional records, which include things such as browsing history and emails. NSLs are powerful legal instruments that allow the government to access things such as phone and financial records without a search warrant. The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issues NSLs, which often are accompanied by orders that prevent recipients from disclosing that they received the letter.

On Thursday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence passed the Intelligence Authorization Act on to the full Senate. But before that happened, the provision that would’ve given the FBI the ability to use NSLs for browsing and email records was removed.

“I fought to remove these extremely troubling and unnecessary provisions from this authorization bill, and I’m glad the committee agreed,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. “Spying on a person’s browsing history is incredibly invasive – almost like a window into their thoughts. Furthermore, this change would have done nothing to make Americans safer, since the government can already obtain these records with a court order.”

Wyden has been one of the main opponents of the language in the intelligence bill, and last June he went so far as to place a hold on the bill in the intelligence committee.

“Spying on a person’s browsing history is incredibly invasive.”

“The fact of the matter is that ‘electronic communication transaction records’ can reveal a great deal of personal information about individual Americans.  If government officials know that an individual routinely emails a mental health professional, or sends texts to a substance abuse support group, or visits a particular dating website, or the website of a particular political group, then the government knows a lot about that individual.  Our Founding Fathers rightly argued that such intrusive searches should be approved by independent judges,” Wyden said at the time.

The committee also removed a separate section of the intelligence bill, language that would have prevented the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from being able to oversee programs that include people who aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The PCLOB is part of the executive branch and is tasked with ensuring that legislation and other actions appropriately balance privacy and liberties.

“Specifically, the bill would narrow the Board’s statutory jurisdiction to cover only programs that impact the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. persons.  To date, the Board’s oversight has focused very much on U.S. persons, and in my judgment this is entirely appropriate.  But if senators wanted to encourage the Board to maintain this focus, that could be accomplished by simply stating the Sense of the Senate.  Instead, this provision amends the law to limit the Board’s official purview,” Wyden said in a statement in June.

Image: J, CC By license