A federal law authorizing a vast amount of the United States military’s foreign intelligence collection is set to expire in two months, pulling the plug on history’s most prolific eavesdropping operation and the primary means by which US spies intercept the private communications of people deemed threatening, or simply interesting, by the US government—the world’s foremost surveillant.
The US National Security Agency (NSA) relies heavily on the statute, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, when compelling the cooperation of communications giants that oversee huge swaths of the world’s internet traffic, intercepting hundreds of millions of phone calls and email messages each year, and eavesdropping on the personal conversations of targeted foreign individuals and anyone else, including Americans, unfortunate enough to be caught in their orbit.
As of now, members of Congress have introduced exactly zero bills to prevent Section 702 from sunsetting on January 1, 2024, even though many—perhaps a majority—view this intelligence “crown jewel” as fundamental to the national defense; a flawed but fixable law. The Democrats, who control the Senate, are not blameless in stalling the reauthorization, with more than a handful vying to ensure its renewal is contingent on new rules that force the government to get a warrant before weaponizing the data against its own citizens. The internal conflict roiling the Republican Party, many of whose members share in the desire to rein in the government’s domestic surveillance capabilities, is nevertheless the biggest factor forestalling a compromise, particularly following the removal of Kevin McCarthy as House speaker earlier this month.
The US intelligence community is not without blame. A litany of reported errors, ethical violations, and at least some criminal activity bearing the telltale signs of having been swept under the rug have gone a long way in validating the concerns of Section 702’s biggest detractors: Privacy defenders on both sides of the aisle who share common ground with political allies of Donald Trump, a wellspring of animosity when it comes to military and intelligence leaders—officials routinely peppered from the right with allegations of partisanship and other “treasonous things.”
A US report published in September by an independent government privacy watchdog describes a number of new “noncompliant” uses of raw Section 702 data by analysts at the NSA, an agency where military and civilian employees have been caught repeatedly abusing classified intel for personal, and even sexual, reasons. Issued by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), a body effectively commandeered by Congress in 2005 in an effort to help gauge the scope of the explosion in surveillance after 9/11, the report adds to a decade’s worth of documented surveillance abuses.
The Wall Street Journal first reported in 2013 amid the exploding Edward Snowden scandal that NSA staff had been caught on numerous occasions spying on what the paper called “love interests.” The phenomenon is common enough at the agency to receive its own internal designation: “LOVEINT,” a portmanteau of “love” and “intelligence,” abbreviated in the style of actual surveillance disciplines such SIGINT and HUMINT (“signals” and “human” intelligence, respectively.)