US intelligence chiefs on Thursday sounded the alarm about the imminent expiration of a law that allows them to spy on overseas web users, and called on Congress to renew it immediately.
“If Congress fails to reauthorize this authority, the Intelligence Community will lose valuable foreign intelligence information, and the resulting intelligence gaps will make it easier for terrorists, weapons proliferators, malicious cyber actors, and other foreign adversaries to plan attacks against our citizens and allies without detection,” the intelligence chiefs said in an open letter to Congress.
The letter was signed by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI chief Christopher Wray and the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Michael Rogers.
The law they want extended, known as Article 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), is set to expire at the end of the year, and Congress is preparing a temporary extension until January 19 as part of a short-term budget bill which will fund the federal government.
The House of Representatives was due to vote on the budget later Thursday, with a deadline to pass it by midnight Friday. The Senate will vote on it after that.
The law allows US intel agencies to spy on internet users abroad, including on platforms like Facebook and Skype. Congress initially passed the law in 2008 and renewed it in 2012, for five years.
“Short-term extensions are not the long-term answer either, as they fail to provide certainty, and will create needless and wasteful operational complications,” said the intelligence heads in their statement.
Most members of Congress support renewing the law on the grounds of combating terrorism, but some on the far right and left have joined forces to try to restrict it, citing concerns that US citizens could be caught up in the overseas spying program.
By law, communications by US citizens cannot be legally intercepted and used except with a judge’s warrant, unlike foreigners living overseas who do not benefit from the same constitutional protections as Americans.