What if Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump had a massive database that held your text messages, emails, video chats and instant messages? What if they could search through that database at any time without a warrant, and use what they find against you for just about any reason?
Given this administration’s well-known racist, bigoted and authoritarian tendencies, you might be especially concerned in this scenario if you’re a person of color, an activist, or someone else Trump and his administration have threatened.
Unfortunately for us all, this scenario isn’t a hypothetical—it’s a reality. The Trump administration inherited massive surveillance authority that allows the government to sweep up Americans’ communications and sift through it without a warrant. The U.S. government already has a shameful history of particularly targeting activists and marginalized communities, and the FBI’s recent report framing so-called “black identity extremists” as potential terror threats only raises fears of targeting.
The bad news is that Congress just voted to reauthorize this authority - and to actually expand it. This is a bipartisan problem, as Members from both parties want to appear “tough on terror” and give security agencies wide authority. The vote count may even be a little surprising - some Republicans (including Ted Cruz) voted the right way, and many Democrats who often publicly express concerns about the Trump administration, voted the wrong way.
The good news is that Congress answers to their constituents - so, you have the power to hold them accountable.
Every Member of Congress had the opportunity to decide whether to protect Americans’ privacy, and shield vulnerable communities from unconstitutional targeting, or to leave broad spying authority in Trump’s—and Jeff Sessions’—hands.
Now they need to answer for their votes.
HERE’S EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- Most people call this spying authority “702.” This is because the law in question is Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which was set to expire unless Congress reauthorized it. The former Bush administration had been secretly operating a warrantless wiretapping program post-9/11 that was eventually shut down over constitutionality concerns. The administration then asked Congress for broad warrantless spying authority, and Congress responded by passing this legislation.
- Section 702 is supposed to support foreign intelligence gathering, but its sweeping language and implementation subject Americans to warrantless surveillance, too. One of the main problems is that 702 doesn’t even require the administration to limit its spying to foreign terrorism suspects or foreign agents—the government can “target” any foreign person outside the U.S. as long as it’s looking for “foreign intelligence information.” That could be someone’s relative or friend overseas, a journalist’s source, an organization’s staff member, etc., As a result, Americans’ conversations to, from, or about those “targets” can be swept up in the process.
- The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. Yet, under Section 702, the U.S. government vacuums up and searches through massive amounts of Americans’ emails, video chats, text messages, instant messages and other electronic communications, all without obtaining a warrant.
- A practice called “backdoor searches” makes things even worse: the FBI routinely searches through the huge database of collected messages for Americans’ information and communications without a warrant or even any suspicion of wrongdoing. It’s been called the “FBI’s Google,” and there is no effective check against the FBI or the White House abusing this power and using the information they find against people in any number of ways. Particularly with Jeff Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department, this is alarming.
- Aside from Fourth Amendment privacy concerns, there’s also a big First Amendment problem with this kind of surveillance. The constitution protects us all as we peacefully protest, worship, and express ourselves. But the government’s spying has historically been used to intimidate activists, journalists, and communities of color, and can have a chilling effect on protected free speech. Trump has shown repeated disrespect for these constitutional protections, and the FBI has recently gone so far as to victim-blame by labeling so-called “black identity extremists” as security threats. Trump’s White House, and Sessions’ Department of Justice, should not have such broad spying authority to use and abuse, especially against the most vulnerable.
- The bill that Congress just passed didn’t just reauthorize 702 authority - it expanded it. This bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing - it was presented as a reform bill but actually made the status quo worse. The bill takes the FBI’s practice of warrantless “backdoor searches” and the NSA’s “about” collections and codified them into law. It also claims to require a warrant before the government searches for Americans’ information, but includes loopholes massive enough to render that “requirement” useless.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW:
On January 11, 2018, the House of Representatives passed this bill to extend and expand the Trump administration’s spying authority.
On January 16, 2018, the Senate followed suit by invoking cloture, which ended debate and precluded the possibility of any amendments, clearing the way for the bill’s ultimate passage. This required 60 votes to pass, and it was very, very close.
Click here to find out how your Representative in the House voted - did they vote “yea” to expand Trump’s surveillance authority? Or “nay,” which would have protected Americans’ privacy?
Click here to find out how your senators voted on cloture - did they vote “nay,” which would have blocked the bill from moving forward? Or did they vote “yea,” ensuring the bill’s passage?
If your MoCs voted the right way, they should know that you support the bold stance that they took to protect your privacy. If they voted the wrong way, make sure they know you are disappointed and will face accountability.
SAMPLE CALL SCRIPT FOR MOCS WHO VOTED THE WRONG WAY:
Caller: Hello - I’m a constituent calling from [part of state]. I’m calling because I saw that [Member] voted against my constitutional right to privacy by advancing the FISA Reauthorization Act, S. 139. I’m deeply disappointed by this and will keep this in mind for [his/her] re-election.
Staffer: Thank you for sharing your concerns. [MoC] wanted to be sure that important authority was reauthorized for the intelligence community to gather information to prevent terrorism.
Caller: But this bill goes far beyond that - it widens the Trump administration’s warrantless surveillance powers even further than they are now, and we know that these powers have already been used against purely domestic communications that have nothing to do with terrorism. I’m really concerned about how this administration will use this authority.
[For Democratic MoCs: Even Ted Cruz voted the right way on this - it’s really appalling that he/she voted to the right of Ted Cruz on this, and sided with the Trump administration.]
Staffer: I appreciate the concern and will relay it to the boss.
Caller: Yes, please do. This vote is really a disgrace.
SAMPLE CALL SCRIPT FOR MOCS WHO VOTED THE RIGHT WAY:
Caller: Hi! My name is [name] and I’m a constituent calling from [part of state]. I’m calling to express my thanks to [MoC] for voting the right way to block the FISA Reauthorization Act, S. 139, from passage. I’m really concerned about Trump’s wide-ranging surveillance authority and am very disappointed that it has now been expanded even further. I am really glad that [MoC] voted in favor of my constitutional rights and did not succumb to fear-mongering.
Staffer: Thank you for calling. I’ll pass that along to [MoC].
Caller: Please do - I recognize that there is pressure to appear “tough on terror” by infringing on rights and liberties, and it is very important that Congress resist that pressure, particularly under the Trump administration. That’s unconstitutional and makes us less safe. So I want [MoC] to know that I stand with [him/her] on this.
Staffer: Thank you for relaying your feedback to us.