Thursday, February 29, 2024

Opinion: Before the feds surveil Americans for Gaza protests, rein in warrantless spying

In the United States, a political leader’s disagreement with the views of a protest movement does not give the government the right to investigate those protesters. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should know that.

However, she recently continued CNN and, without citing any evidence, accused protesters advocating a ceasefire in Gaza of having ties to Russia and called on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into the funding behind the protests. When the outrage over this proposed abuse of power erupted a few days later, she double.

It is precisely this type of danger that requires carefully limiting monitoring tools such as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law aimed at foreigners abroad but commonly misused to spy on Americans. This provision of FISA will expire in April unless renewed by Congress. Lawmakers should not reauthorize it without fundamental reform.

Two other Californian representatives, Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) and Sarah Jacobs (D-San Diego), advocated reform of Section 702 to protect Americans’ privacy. The House Judiciary Committee passed legislation last year to do just that: The Protecting Liberty and Ending Warrantless Surveillance Act would require the government to present evidence of wrongdoing and obtain a warrant before searching the communications of Americans, like those protesting for a cease-fire.

Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House, was part of the inner circle aware of the surveillance results (the “Gang of Eight”) longer than anyone currently in Congress, so she knows the many tools the national security apparatus can use to investigate and surveil protesters. She also knows how these tools can be abused.

There is a long history of the FBI using “foreign influence” as an excuse to conduct illegal surveillance of Americans. The monitored office Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, saying they might be under the influence of foreign communists. After September 11, the FBI Many times profiled, monitored and they have disproportionately pursued Muslim Americans, often under the guise of affiliation with foreign adversaries. This shameful legacy would continue if Gaza war protesters were subjected to baseless surveillance.

While Section 702 requires surveillance to target foreigners abroad, in practice large amounts of communications that Americans exchange with people abroad are also scanned and stored for future investigations. If the FBI opened an investigation into pro-ceasefire protesters, agents would almost certainly use the Section 702 database to find and search protesters’ communications. Vague and unfounded allegations of foreign influence or foreign intelligence collection can lead to a flood of illegal searches.

The FBI can search this database without having to demonstrate probable cause, as the 4th Amendment would otherwise require. In most cases, an FBI analyst can search and review an American’s private communications without needing to seek further approval.

Just last year, government documents revealed that the FBI abused Section 702 to illegally question the communications of 133 Black Lives Matter protesters as part of a baseless investigation into whether they were subject to foreign influence.

According to a report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Council, from November 2020 to December 2021, “non-compliant requests linked to civil unrest number in the tens of thousands”. Previous searches also include two “Middle Eastern” men who loaded boxes of cleaning supplies into a vehicle and a state court judge who complained to the FBI about civil rights violations.

Section 702 has been abused under presidents of both political parties and has been used to illegally interrogate the communications of individuals and groups across the political spectrum. That’s why, as public trust in our leaders and institutions rapidly declines by the day, lawmakers should be strengthening civil liberties protections against abuses of power, not advocating for more.

Kia Hamadanchy is a senior policy advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from



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