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Lawmakers are gearing up for a fight over a key intelligence gathering tool

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

An intelligence gathering tool that the government says is critical to national security will expire at the end of the year unless Congress renews it. But lawmakers have concerns about the program, and that sets up what is expected to be a monthslong battle over reauthorization.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: At a recent congressional hearing, Attorney General Merrick Garland was asked about Section 702 of FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a program for collecting the communications of foreigners overseas. Here's how Garland replied.

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MERRICK GARLAND: Every morning, I have a all-threats briefing with the FBI, with an intelligence community briefer, with our national security division. A enormously large percentage of the threats information that we are receiving comes from 702 collection.

LUCAS: And Garland, a man not generally prone to hyperbole, painted a dire picture of what failing to renew Section 702 by the end of the year would mean for U.S. national security.

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GARLAND: We would be intentionally blinding ourselves to extraordinary danger, in my view, and this is not a view that I've always held. This is something I've learned as I've been at the department.

LUCAS: Section 702 allows the government, without an individual court order, to collect emails, text messages and phone calls of foreigners overseas, even when they're talking to Americans. Congress has reauthorized Section 702 twice before over the objections of progressives who want more civil liberties protections. Back then, Republicans were staunch backers of government surveillance powers. But the political winds have shifted on Capitol Hill in the wake of revelations about FISA violations, particularly by the FBI, including one case involving a former 2016 Trump campaign aide. Now many GOP lawmakers are publicly demanding Section 702 be overhauled. That includes Utah Senator Mike Lee, who had this message for Garland.

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MIKE LEE: You can tell your department, not a chance in hell we're going to be reauthorizing that thing without some major, major reforms.

LUCAS: The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner, delivered a similar message in more measured tones to U.S. spy bosses testifying before his panel.

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MIKE TURNER: There have been, and there continue to be, many abuses of FISA. It must be reformed.

LUCAS: A recent government report documented violations, including the FBI searching 702 databases for information about a sitting U.S. congressman, as well as a local political party. The first step, Turner told the spy chiefs, is to admit that there is a problem.

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TURNER: Today, I am going to be looking to each of you for honesty and acknowledgement that FISA has been abused.

LUCAS: Previous efforts to reform Section 702 have fallen short, but the current political dynamics present a rare chance to get changes on the books, says Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice.

ELIZABETH GOITEIN: This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for reform because there is broad bipartisan support.

LUCAS: The starting point for reform, in her view, is requiring the government to get a warrant before searching 702 data for Americans' communications. Since its inception, U.S. officials have touted Section 702 as a powerful tool to gather intelligence on terrorist groups. But now, with the fight against terrorism fading from the headlines, U.S. officials say 702 is mainly used to vacuum up intelligence on a range of high-priority threats. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines rattled off a list for lawmakers this month.

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AVRIL HAINES: Malicious cyber actors targeting U.S. critical infrastructure, U.S. government efforts to stop components of weapons of mass destruction from reaching foreign actors and even key intelligence related to threats emanating from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran.

LUCAS: CIA director William Burns even chipped in that 702 has been critical in the fight against fentanyl and Mexican cartels. The fact that usually tight-lipped intelligence officials are willing to provide examples in public of Section 702 successes is notable, as is the fact that they're doing so more than nine months before the law expires. Both are signs that the administration is aware of the challenges that lie ahead in convincing a skeptical Congress to renew it.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.