Democrats Want to Expand New Spy Powers That Trump Could Use

This week could see the radical expansion of government surveillance that would be ripe for abuse by a future authoritarian leader. The twist? It’s Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment who want to pass it.

The US government is poised to radically expand its power to spy on its own people — all while the politicians voting to push it through accuse each other of being dangerous authoritarians bent on turning government power on their political opponents. (Brooks Kraft LLC / Corbis via Getty Images)

With election insanity ramping up, a war in Eastern Europe, a genocide in the Middle East, and the very real possibility of another dumb US war in the region, you’d be forgiven for completely missing the fact that the US government is poised to radically expand its power to spy on its own people — all while the politicians voting to push it through accuse each other of being dangerous authoritarians bent on turning the power of the federal government on their political opponents.

The measure in question, which could be voted into law as early as Wednesday, has been described variously by privacy advocates, lawmakers, and even former Department of Justice lawyers across the political spectrum as “dramatic and terrifying,” a “Trojan Horse for PATRIOT Act 2.0,” edging the United States toward a “Chinese-style Panopticon,” and “Stasi-like,” referring to the feared East German secret police notorious for eavesdropping and collecting information on the most intimate details of ordinary people’s lives. That last descriptor, says NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is “not only a fair characterization . . . it’s probably generous.”

What’s causing this alarm is a provision buried in the bill that’s meant to reauthorize the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) spying program for another two years, specifically the Section 702 power that allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to “incidentally” hoover up and peek at Americans’ private communications in the course of spying on foreigners — a bill that’s been at the center of a week’s worth of intense political to-ing and fro-ing. As usual when it comes to radical expansions of US government surveillance, the issue boils down to an almost imperceptible change in the wording of a bill, which in practice will have vast implications for ordinary Americans’ privacy.

As outlined by ZwillGen attorneys and principals Marc Zwillinger and Steve Lane — both former Department of Justice lawyers who now run a firm assisting companies in navigating the labyrinthine post-9/11 legal landscape — the language in question tweaks the existing law’s definition of an “electronic communication service provider.” Currently, that means telecommunications carriers, providers of remote computing services, or any communication services provider with access to transmitted or stored electronic communications (think Verizon, AT&T, or Google).

But if the bill that cleared the House last week passes the Senate this week, that definition would be changed to include “any service provider” in general with access to those same communications, or with access to “equipment that is being or may be used to transmit or store such communications,” as well as any “custodian” of these providers. It’s this seemingly minor change, privacy advocates charge, that would drastically expand who could be forced by the government to spy on unsuspecting Americans.

“The expanded definition would appear to cover data centers, colocation providers, business landlords, shared workspaces, or even hotels where guests connect to the Internet,” Zwillinger and Lane wrote back in December. Meanwhile, the inclusion of “custodians,” they warned, could “sweep in any third party involved in providing equipment, storage, or even cleaning services to such entities.”

The source of these criticisms should raise extra alarm bells. Since 2015, Zwillinger has served as one of the amici curiae for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, meaning, one of the nongovernmental advisers legally required to be the voice of the public on matters of privacy and civil liberties before the special court responsible for issuing search warrants under FISA — one of just nine such advisers. This is no conspiratorial crackpot making these claims.

The “reforms” were actually pulled earlier, owing to the concerns raised by civil liberties advocates like Zwillinger, and popped back up in a revised form supposedly meant to assuage critics. But ironically, those tweaks only highlight just how radical the bill actually is: all they did was add a list of specific types of businesses that would be exempt from the expansion, some of them named as hypotheticals by the bill’s critics, like hotels, coffee shops, and senior centers. That’s all well and good, but it also means there’s still an entire universe of entities that aren’t left out if you just work your imagination a little harder, like maids, delivery drivers, or utility providers.

You will not be surprised, then, that those who were most up in arms about the original bill don’t feel any different about its new, “revised” form.

“It allows the government to force any American who installs, maintains, or repairs anything that transmits or stores communications to spy on the government’s behalf,” Oregon Democratic senator Ron Wyden, one of Congress’s most prominent pro–civil liberties voices, warned last week. “That means anyone with access to a server, a wire, a cable box, a wifi router, or a phone.”

Wyden added that this would all be entirely secret, and that those compelled by the government to spy for them “would be bound to silence, and there would be no court oversight.”

“The amendment clearly allows the government to secretly conscript uninvolved Americans and American businesses to spy on each other,” read a statement from this past Monday by Sean Vitka, policy counsel for Demand Progress.

Terming it the “Everyone Is a Spy” provision, Demand Progress and allied groups laid out a particularly hair-raising scenario in which this power could be used and abused. If the government decides to spy on a journalist who is communicating with foreigners, whether the officials of an adversarial nation or perhaps a dissident disliked by the Washington establishment, US spy agencies could use this provision to force someone with access to, for instance, the journalist’s laptop and who fits the bill’s description to get that reporter’s private communications.

That could include figures like the reporter’s cleaners, their plumber, someone delivering a package to their house, or even a security guard at the newsroom they work at. No wonder the Freedom of the Press Foundation called the bill’s impending passage “a real emergency for press (and everyone else’s) freedom.”

“The bill would hand intel agencies countless new ways to surveil journalists and their sources by commandeering ordinary Americans and businesses as government spies,” it charged.

These are not wild hypotheticals. Besides the fact that the federal government has repeatedly targeted journalists with surveillance (in both distant and recent history), part of the reason for the alarm surrounding this bill, and the reason the reauthorization proved such a complicated fight in Congress this past week, is that Section 702 has led to serial, unambiguously illegal abuse.

Because foreigners inevitably end up communicating with US citizens — whether friends, relatives, colleagues, professional acquaintances, sources, or any number of other possibilities — that means the NSA “incidentally” ends up eavesdropping on Americans without a warrant in the course of collecting information on foreign targets. Many Americans would be aghast if they knew the kinds of abuses this “backdoor” domestic surveillance has led to.

Federal agents have used this provision to look up the identifying details and even communications of more than a hundred George Floyd protesters, a Chinese American professor, current and former journalists and political commentators, mosques, random immigrants, and “tens of thousands” of searches “related to civil unrest” over the course of a year, according to a report produced by the federal oversight board set up by Congress during the Bush years. They have also targeted entirely nonpolitical people who aren’t the “typical” targets of US surveillance: victims of crime, 1,600 Americans who had flown to or from a foreign country through an airport in a particular date range, athletes competing at an unnamed event, as well as, most outrageously, one NSA analyst’s prospective tenant and another’s romantic interests from an online dating service.

Not even the powerful were safe, which might be the most worrying part of all, given the potential for coercion and blackmail. A congressman, US senator, and state senator, former and serving government officials more generally, nineteen thousand congressional campaign donors, a state court judge who reported a municipal police chief’s civil rights violations to the FBI — all were ensnared in the program’s abuse. Now imagine all of these abuses continuing under the bill’s new, expanded provisions.

What takes the issue into the realm of farce is that this measure is being rammed through by a bipartisan coalition of politicians who last week took a break from warning their respective voters that US democracy hangs in the balance and that the country is on the brink of dictatorship just long enough to hand a future, unscrupulous leader these potentially tyrannical powers.

The measure passed overwhelmingly in the House, 273 to 147. That vote saw Democrats like Nancy Pelosi (“we’ve been taken over by a dictator”), Hakeem Jeffries (“Donald Trump views himself as a Putin-esque, dictatorial figure . . . and we should believe him”), Jamie Raskin (Trump’s “in full-blown autocratic, dictatorial mode at this point”), and Elissa Slotkin (“We have to believe [Trump] and understand what that means for our daily lives if he’s reelected”) choose to ensure that, should Trump win the election in less than a year’s time, the man they charge is a dictator-in-waiting will have a host of extreme powers to misuse against his political enemies and consolidate power.

In maybe the most extreme bit of hypocrisy, the bill passed by as large a margin as it did partly thanks to an intense lobbying campaign from the Joe Biden White House, the same Joe Biden who has spent months and years now warning that Trump is “determined to destroy American democracy.” Biden, who has insisted that “the defining feature of our democracy is our Constitution,” also lobbied against a House amendment to the FISA bill that would have explicitly required federal officials to get a warrant to look at US citizens’ communications, with the White House circulating a memo prior to the vote calling it an “extreme amendment” that was “a threat to national security” — even though the need for a warrant is a basic, core part of that very “defining feature of democracy” that Biden keeps boasting he’s proudly defending.

You couldn’t get a more perfect summary of the state of Democratic politics, and the increasingly empty, self-serving rhetoric of “authoritarianism” and “democracy” that suffuses it. There are good reasons to believe a future Trump presidency really will abuse the enormous power of the federal government to stifle dissidents, punish political opponents, and solidify his grip on power. But examining this spectacle and prior, similar episodes, it stretches credulity that establishment Democrats actually believe their own words on the subject.

With Biden and the Democratic establishment seemingly determined to put these powers in place for a future authoritarian leader to abuse, civil liberties advocates are placing their faith in ordinary constituents in the hope they will follow their instructions and call and pressure their Senators this week to vote down the measure. It remains to be seen if the US public will be mobilized in time to serve as a bulwark against authoritarianism. One thing is for sure though: when push comes to shove, the Democratic Party certainly will not.