Republicans have long supported the sweeping surveillance capabilities of the NSA and have insisted they’re vitally important to US national security. But with their man Trump caught up in multiple scandals that may involve intelligence services targeting his communications, privacy is suddenly a top priority.
The NSA’s Prism and “upstream” data collection programs first hit the public consciousness when Edward Snowden fled the US and revealed extensive details about the agency’s enormous powers to intercept foreign and domestic communications. The programs fall under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which is up for renewal at the end of the year. Just last week, officials from the Trump administration said that the White House supports “the clean reauthorization [of Section 702] and the administration believes it’s necessary to protect the security of the nation”. But that may have changed.
Devin Nunes is the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee. He was part of the Trump transition team and has reportedly developed a close relationship with the US president. He also is one of the few members of congress that seems to take Trump’s allegation that Obama illegally wiretapped him seriously. Asked yesterday about the renewal of Section 702 in the midst of continued intelligence leaks about Trump and Russia, Nunes said, “I think it’s very problematic.”
Many people feel that the investigation of the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia should be handled by an independent commission, rather than the House intelligence committee. Nunes has fought back against that suggestion. “They can say whatever they want, but at the end of the day, I hold the gavel, they’re in the minority and we’re going to do what we want to do,” he told CNN. “We are not going to give up that jurisdiction to anyone else as long as I’m here.”
Nunes’ absolute refusal to acknowledge the growing body of evidence that Trump and his team have repeatedly lied about contacts with the Russian government has led to the impression that he is acting as a shield for the administration. And now, he thinks that the NSA’s ability to surveil foreign powers and any American communications that might come up in that surveillance might be a problem. He elaborated at yesterday’s press conference:
I’ve expressed this concern to the IC [intelligence community]. We have sent them many followup questions as it relates to intelligence that’s been collected. And we expect prompt answers. I think we also expect unprecedented answers from them of the information that we’re going to be asking for.
Democrats have typically agreed with Republicans that the NSA programs are necessary and that doesn’t seem to have changed. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told the Guardian yesterday that “Section 702 has been a far more impactful and important counterterrorism program and tool”. But, “That doesn’t mean though that we shouldn’t explore whether there are ways to improve any of the protections in existing law or whether there are any changes that we need to make to the structure of the program.”
No one knows how many American citizens communications have been caught up in the NSA’s net at this point. In 2014, The Guardian found tens of thousands of American’s emails were intercepted under one program. Lawmakers have shown little concern. Maybe Trump’s relentless self-interest will finally result in something good being done about this egregious overreach. More likely he’ll find a way to make it more horrible, if not through intent, through incompetence.