US President Biden advisors acknowledge violations in surveillance program

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Advisors to President Joe Biden on Monday acknowledged violations of controversial surveillance powers allowing US agencies to spy on non-Americans around the world -- but said the tool is too vital to abandon.

An independent advisory panel assembled by the White House recommended reforms to the powers, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But it said the tool, established in the wake of intelligence failures during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, remains indispensable to national security.

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Section 702 allows intelligence agencies, such as the FBI, to conduct electronic surveillance -- including looking at emails -- on non-Americans abroad without need for a court warrant.

However, Section 702 faces strong resistance against being renewed in Congress when it expires in December due to controversies over searches enveloping US citizens as well as foreigners.

The presidential board recommended reforms and a “revitalized system” to improve how the protocol is used.

“Unfortunately, complacency, a lack of proper procedures, and the sheer volume” of surveillance led to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “inappropriate use of Section 702 authorities, specifically US person queries,” the board found.

However, it said there had been “no evidence of willful misuse of these authorities by FBI for political purposes.” It also found that to date only three out of millions of instances of information being gathered through Section 702 featured “intentional misconduct.”

Scrapping the program might later be seen as “one of the worst intelligence failures of our time,” the advisors warned.

Democrats and civil liberties activists have long opposed the program.

However, the current center of opposition is led by Republicans taking their cue from Donald Trump, the indicted former president whose 2024 election comeback bid is partly based on portraying the FBI as politically biased against him and his supporters.

Section 702 was first established in 2008 and has been twice renewed, relying heavily on Republican support.

The White House board argued for renewal of Section 702 as a “vital, foundational intelligence tool upon which a myriad of other foreign intelligence efforts depends.”

“It has been instrumental in its first 15 years in preventing several potential high-impact events,” including a thwarted plot to bomb the New York City subway in 2009, it said.

A “significant” amount of the classified information provided to top government officials on topics including international terrorist networks, China and Russia, is also collected through Section 702, it said.

“After careful review, the Board strongly believes that Section 702 authorities are crucial to national security and do not threaten civil liberties, so long as the requisite culture, processes, and oversight are in place,” the official report said.

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