White House says FISA powers can help stop drugs crossing border

White House says FISA surveillance powers can help stop drugs crossing border as admiral says they could have stopped his 19-year-old son dying of fentanyl overdose

  • FISA surveillance powers are due to expire by end of the year unless renewed 
  • Republicans are still angry at errors made by the FBI during the Russia probe
  • But the White House is making the case that it is essential for hunting cartels 

The White House on Friday leant into the war on drugs, and the flow of fentanyl from Mexico, to persuade Republicans and some Democrats to reauthorize a controversial George W. Bush-era surveillance program.

A spokesman highlighted how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702 was crucial in obtaining intelligence on traffickers and smugglers.

The statute allows intelligence agencies to intercept emails and other electronic communications of foreigners abroad but faces intense opposition from those who see it as a backdoor to monitoring Americans caught up in those conversations. 

White House spokesman John Kirby used a regular briefing with reporters to highlight its value and highlighted the example of Admiral James Winnefeld, who described how his son might never have died of an overdose if the statute had used to its full extent. 

Kirby said ‘We urge that reauthorization. 

Six years ago Admiral James Winnefeld (left) lost his 19-year-old son Jonathan to a fentanyl overdose. They are pictured with Jonathan's mother Mary Winnefeld at the University of Denver in 2017. Jonathan died soon after the picture was taken

On Friday, White House National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications John Kirby cited Winnefeld's experience as a reason why the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702 should be reauthorized at the end of the year

‘The stark and sad example that Admiral Winnefeld cites is just one example of how 702 and those authorities really give us needed flexibility to pursue and to advance our national security interests around the world and quite frankly, here on the streets of America.’

The warrantless surveillance program has its roots in the fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

Civil liberties campaigners have long had misgivings about its reach and power.

And they have joined forces in recent years with Republican skeptics who align themselves with Donald Trump and his attacks on security agencies. 

It must be reauthorized before the end of the year, and its supporters are stepping up their efforts to highlight how it keeps Americans safe.

In an op-ed for Fox News, Winnefeld, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is now chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), describes the phone call six years ago telling him his 19-year-old son was dead.

‘This tragedy didn’t have to happen,’ he writes. ‘Societal stigma, gaps in mental health and addiction treatment, and a lack of understanding of the disease of substance dependence set this young “warrior against addiction” up for failure on the demand side of the equation.

‘But he was also let down on the supply side: the fentanyl that killed him should never have been on the street. 

‘Had a key surveillance authority used by our nation’s intelligence community been fully applied to the fentanyl crisis that began gripping our nation around the time of Jonathan’s death, that fatal dose might have never reached him.’

The provision allows the surveillance of foreign persons intending to do harm to the U.S., he continued, and on certain occasions may indicate that the target communicated with an American. 

In those cases, a check is then done to see whether that person could be an accomplice or a victim.

‘In the case of fentanyl, Section 702 could alert officials to a drug cartel working with a U.S. person, but the targeted collection of that person’s communications would generally require a warrant,’ writes Winnefeld.

He concludes by quoting his own report for the PIAB and the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB).

‘As we stated in the PIAB/IOB report, “if Congress fails to reauthorize Section 702, history may judge [its lapse] as one of the worst intelligence failures of our time.” Let’s set politics aside and protect our nation from all threats, including illicit synthetic drugs, while also holding true to our belief in civil liberties,’ he writes.

The angle is just one way that the White House hopes it can persuade Republicans to drop their opposition to the powers.

Many are still angry at errors made by the FBI during the investigation into links between Russia and Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign.


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