Adm. Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, said that the section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that allows the NSA to collect information on foreign nationals is “instrumental” in providing U.S. political leaders with intelligence.
Section 702 of FISA is up for renewal during this congressional term, which has sparked discussion between industry leaders and the White House about whether the NSA’s surveillance powers should be altered in any way. Rogers gave his opinion before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, while discussing Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Rogers said that if the act were revoked, “it would significantly impact the ability to generate insight.”
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Section 702 does not allow the NSA to target any U.S. citizens; however, the NSA can come across communications between a foreign target and a U.S. citizen on an “incidental” basis in which the conversation may be used. Otherwise, like other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the NSA has to obtain a warrant before it can conduct surveillance on U.S. citizens.
When the NSA obtains information involving a U.S. citizen, it asks whether the information has to do with any criminal action. If it does not, the NSA would “purge the data.” If it does, the NSA has the ability to use the information, according to Rogers.
The NSA then decides whether to disclose the name of the U.S. citizen in its reports or to “mask” the individual, company, or U.S. entity by labeling them “Person 1.”
“It is usually disseminated in a masked form,” Rogers said.
If the NSA decides to disclose the person’s name, a group of 20 NSA officials, including Rogers, decides whether the agency or person receiving the information needs to know the person’s identity in order to understand the context of the material. If the NSA uncovers the criminal activity of a U.S. citizen, it can turn over the information to the FBI.
Rogers said that the NSA takes the privacy of U.S. citizens seriously by keeping the names of masked individuals anonymous.
“I have raised this with my own workforce over the past couple of months,” Rogers said.
Members of Congress expressed concern about the masking process because the Washington Post received information about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations about U.S. sanctions with a Russian ambassador. Members of Congress questioned whether Flynn’s name being disclosed indicated a flaw in the masking process.
Rogers said that he is gathering information to report to Congress on how many unmasked individuals were disseminated from the NSA over the course of the year.
Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., said that the masking process is meticulous and should not affect Congress’ decision to renew Section 702.
“What we’re doing has no nefarious motivations,” Rooney said.