US lawmakers demand to know how many residents are under surveillance

Congress wants to know how many US residents' communications are swept up in NSA surveillance before they extend the legal authority for the agency's programs

Two powerful U.S. lawmakers are pushing President Donald Trump administration's to tell them how many of the country's residents are under surveillance by the National Security Agency.

In a letter sent Friday, Representatives Bob Goodlatte and John Conyers Jr. asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide an estimate of the number of U.S. residents whose communications are swept up in NSA surveillance of foreign targets. Goodlatte, a Republican, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Conyers is the committee's senior Democrat.

Committee members have been seeking an estimate of the surveillance numbers from the ODNI for a year now. Other lawmakers have been asking for the surveillance numbers since 2011, but ODNI has failed to provide them.

The law that gives the NSA broad authority to spy on people overseas expires at the end of the year, and it's "imperative" that lawmakers understand the impact on U.S. residents before they extend the surveillance authority, the letter said.

Some digital rights groups and lawmakers believe the communications of millions of U.S. residents are caught up in NSA surveillance programs when they talk with overseas targets.

The lawmakers asked the ODNI to update them on the status of their request by April 24.

Goodlatte and Conyers want the ODNI to provide them with "real numbers," not just the percentage of communications collected that is from U.S. residents. They plan to share the numbers with the public, they wrote. ODNI should also publicly release its methodology for counting the number of U.S. communications, they said.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prohibits the NSA from targeting people inside the U.S., but the agency, in "incidental" collection, gathers information from U.S. residents who are communicating with the agency’s overseas targets.

The law then allows the FBI and other intelligence agencies to search those U.S. communications for evidence of crimes, including crimes not connected to terrorism. Many digital rights groups, along with some lawmakers, want to end this so-called backdoor search of Section 702 records.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded Goodlatte and Conyers for pressuring ODNI to release details. 

"It is astounding that even Congress still remains in the dark when it comes key information relating to Section 702," ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said by email. "It is past time for the intelligence community to publicly release information regarding the number of Americans who have their information collected under the program and the number of times the FBI searches Section 702 databases for information about Americans."

An NSA spokeswoman didn't immediately provide a comment on the letter.

Section 702 surveillance has generated controversy during Trump's presidency. In early March, Trump, in a series of tweets, accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in New York City during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump has provided no evidence of the bombshell charge, and his staff later suggested the Trump campaign was simply under surveillance. It appears that the NSA intercepted some of his campaign staffers' communications when they talked to foreign surveillance targets. That type of surveillance would be legal and authorized by Section 702.

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