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What is FISA? Here are 4 things to know about the controversial spy law

What is FISA? Here are 4 things to know about the controversial spy law
[Photo: Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images]

President Trump sent mixed signals about a controversial surveillance law in a pair of Thursday-morning tweets, just hours before the House of Representatives voted to extend the provision.

But what exactly is FISA, and what is Congress set to decide about the law? Here are a few things to know:

  • The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is a roughly 40-year-old federal law limiting how U.S. spy agencies can monitor Americans’ communications, first passed in the wake of 1970s Congressional investigations into privacy violations by the three-letter spy agencies. Most famously, it established a secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to vet wiretaps and other monitoring of foreign agents within the United States.
  • In 2008, Congress passed a number of changes to FISA, including a provision known as Section 702, which allows warrantless monitoring of phone and internet use by non-Americans outside the United States. That’s the section of the law the House voted today to extend—it’s set to expire next Friday, and the Trump administration has argued that renewing it is critical to national security.
  • But since Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013 revealed the extent of warrantless digital monitoring, critics have argued that the spy agencies too frequently take advantage of a loophole in the law, sweeping up Americans’ communications while monitoring people abroad, then holding on to the data in case it’s ever useful. Trump hints in his first tweet that it may have been used under the Obama administration to spy on his campaign.
  • Legislators on both sides of the aisle have called for changes to limit how that incidentally collected data about Americans could be used without a warrant. But the House voted Thursday to renew Section 702 for another six years in roughly its current form. The bill now moves to the Senate, where Kentucky Republican Rand Paul has said he may attempt a filibuster unless the spy authority is weakened.