Dozens of prominent Asian American groups are asking United States lawmakers this morning to hold fast in the face of an anticipated campaign by congressional leaders to extend the Section 702 surveillance program by securing it, like a rider, to another “must pass” bill.
Sixty-three groups across the country representing and allied with Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have signed a letter of “strong opposition” to any “short-term extension” of the 702 program—surveillance, the groups say, that is almost certainly impacting Asian Americans at a disproportionate rate.
WIRED first reported last week on an effort underway by US Senate leaders to extend the 702 program, which is slated to expire at the end of the year but may continue until April under the program’s “transition procedures.” Emails from WIRED requesting comment from the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, have gone unanswered since Friday.
“Section 702 and related surveillance authorities have been misused to spy on Americans, including but not limited to protesters, journalists, campaign donors, and members of Congress,” says the letter, signed by the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, the Sikh Coalition, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the Stop AAPI Hate coalition, among dozens of other groups. The consequences of unlawful surveillance have had a “devastating toll” on Asian Americans, they say, and on people’s “careers, livelihoods, and reputations.”
Demanding the 702 program be “pursued through standalone legislation” and open to debate, the letter says a short-term fix would alienate lawmakers already open to salvaging the program—albeit with heavily favored reforms. Renewing the program with a last-minute amendment tucked into a bill the government can’t function without would only serve to undermine the democratic process, the groups say, and “imperil the long-term viability of Section 702.”
“There are a lot of folks who are really worried,” says Andy Wong, managing director of advocacy at Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition of community-based groups. The impact of government surveillance on the broader Asian American community, he says, runs deep. “Whether it’s traveling or communicating with their loved ones or doing anything abroad, even if it’s completely innocuous, all of this surveillance has a chilling effect.”
“Approximately two-thirds of Asian Americans are immigrants,” says Joanna YangQing Derman, a program director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the civic engagement and civil rights nonprofit. “We are far more likely to have family, friends, and business associates abroad. As a result, Asian Americans are likely to be overrepresented in all the data that Section 702 enables the government to collect.”
The 702 program is used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) to target the electronic communications of hundreds of thousands of foreigners each year. The program, which works to gather intel for counterterrorism, espionage, and cyber defense investigations, relies on the compulsory assistance of US telecom providers—a power granted on a year-by-year basis through “certifications” by a secret court.
Despite the government’s avowed efforts not to intercept and store Americans’ internet communications in bulk, the NSA is known to capture significant volumes of domestic calls, texts, and emails between Americans and people overseas. The law, as it is, does little to prevent federal agents from dredging up the content of those calls or messages later without a warrant, for reasons often irrelevant to why they were captured in the first place.
On Monday, another letter directed at Senator majority leader Chuck Schumer was signed by more than 20 civil liberties groups that are likewise opposed to any attempt to prolong 702 surveillance, which falls under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), by linking its fate to a spending bill that will be inevitably negotiated at a high level, with little or no opportunity for amendment once it reaches the House or Senate floor. A leading contender for such a bill, a congressional source told WIRED last week, is the National Defense Authorization Act, annual legislation that’s considered “must pass,” and which will allocate roughly $886 billion in national security spending across the Pentagon and US Department of Energy next year.
The majority leader signaled openness to adopting other “must pass” legislation on Monday: an appropriations bill sponsored by House speaker Mike Johnson, which Schumer said “pleased” him, in that it avoided “steep cuts” and was “moving in our direction.” Attaching a 702 amendment to any stopgap spending bill at this hour, however, could serve as a poison pill, eliciting stiff opposition from House Republicans—such as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan—for whom FISA remains a four-letter word.