With the terrorist threat to our homeland at the highest it has been in over a decade, the question of whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is quite literally a life-or-death decision for the citizens of the United States. If Section 702 is allowed to sunset at the end of the year, on New Year’s Day the United States and its allies around the world will find themselves blinded to imminent threats to our homeland and military members stationed abroad.
Its contribution to our safety is irrefutable. In 2009, FISA Section 702 protected the nation from an al-Qaeda attack by Najibullah Zazi, who intended to detonate explosives on Manhattan subway lines. In 2014, it again prevented attacks by assisting in the removal of ISIS leader, Hajji Iman. In 2022, Section 702 contributed to the U.S. government operation against Ayman al-Zawahiri, a last remaining 9/11 architect.
It has revealed — and continues to reveal — information regarding illicit plans to smuggle fentanyl pills and methamphetamine across the U.S. border, saving thousands of American lives in just the last year alone. Section 702 data has thwarted countless ransomware and cyber-attacks. Specifically, it was vital in warning the international community, the private sector, and the public about efforts to deploy information technology workers to commit fraud against a global industry, including against U.S. businesses, to generate revenue for North Korea’s nuclear program. Section 702 has helped uncover gruesome atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine — including the murder of noncombatants and the forced relocation of children from Russian-occupied Ukraine to the Russian Federation — and the detention of refugees fleeing violence by Russian personnel. The list goes on.
Now is not the time to hamstring our ability to detect and disarm terrorist plots against us. The horrendous Oct. 7 surprise attack on the people of Israel that left 1,200 civilians dead at the hands of Hamas militants exemplifies what can happen when a nation’s intelligence community is left in the dark. We cannot put ourselves in the same position.
Now, in the growing shadow of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, terrorists have seized an opportunity to deceptively equate U.S. support for Israel with fabricated U.S. aggression towards the Islamic religion. This false narrative drives increased recruitment and gives weight to their call to arms, further invigorating and empowering their intent to mutilate and murder unwitting citizens of the U.S. and her allies.
Section 702 was created to address national security threats in an ever-changing, technological and threat environment. It allows the Intelligence Community to acquire the communications of specific foreign actors overseas and use those details to identify terrorist plots, track spies, identify cyber-attacks and work to prevent the harm they cause.
Without this insight, we will leave ourselves open and vulnerable to preventable attacks, daring history to repeat itself.
Equally as pressing as the need to reauthorize Section 702 is the need for its improvement. As utilized (and recently demonstrated by a few negligent agents at the FBI), Section 702 requires more to compel compliance to its guidelines and to adequately address noncompliance after-the-fact.
This inherent lack of accountability led to unfortunate instances of misuse which, regardless of intent, were inexcusable. However, our proposed reforms planned to take effect upon Section 702 reauthorization would effectively remedy its weaknesses by heightening penalties for noncompliance. The reforms would criminalize intentional abuse, impose escalating consequences for unintentional misuse and focus the provision to provide for greater transparency and reporting.
These upgrades, coupled with a renewed emphasis on compliance with the rules governing U.S. person queries, will safeguard the privacy of U.S. citizens while the provision safeguards their lives and liberty.
Section 702’s immense utility to our nation’s protectors and the safety it affords our fellow citizens is not up for debate. What is up for debate is whether our elected representatives should pull the plug on the tool that silently protects the American public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year without any meaningful mitigation of the increased danger that this self-inflicted ignorance would create.
Blindfolding our intelligence community as the threat of terrorist attack reaches and exceeds its highest point in 10 years is a surefire way to invite further tragedy.
The threat that Congress does not see is that, without reauthorization of the improved Section 702, we as a country will not be able to see the threat. Both are real and both are deadly.
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1, represents Bucks County.