A new poll indicates that bipartisan skepticism of federal spying practices is on the rise—a fact that could make the Biden administration’s push to renew certain powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) more challenging.
The national AP-NORC poll, conducted March 16–20, shows that Republicans and Democrats espouse similar views on government surveillance tactics, though Republicans’ willingness to forfeit some liberties for safety has significantly declined over the last decade.
Overall, 48 percent of respondents said they believed it was “sometimes necessary” for the government to sacrifice some rights and freedoms to combat terrorism, down from 54 percent in 2021 and 64 percent in 2011.
Among Republicans, the decline was even greater, with just 44 percent responding in the affirmative compared with 69 percent in 2011. For Democrats, the shift was more minimal: 55 percent agreed, compared with 59 percent in 2011.
The new survey also touched on several surveillance practices authorized under FISA Section 702.
When asked whether they were in favor of the U.S. government listening to phone calls made outside the United States without a warrant, 44 percent of respondents said they opposed the practice, compared with 28 percent who responded favorably. An additional 28 percent said they neither favored nor opposed the practice.
Participants responded similarly regarding the warrantless monitoring of foreign nationals’ emails and internet searches.
FISA was first enacted in 1978 in response to the unjustified surveillance of U.S. citizens under the Richard Nixon administration. The goal was to facilitate judicial and congressional oversight of the government’s foreign surveillance practices while still maintaining a certain level of secrecy for national defense purposes.
In 2008, the law was expanded to include Section 702, which authorizes the warrantless monitoring of the communications of foreign nationals located outside of the United States. Although the law expressly prohibits the targeting of U.S. citizens through these programs, their communications are sometimes caught up in the mix. Those communications can then be searched by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Acknowledging that such abuses are “completely unacceptable,” an FBI spokesperson told The Epoch Times last month that the bureau had already taken action to “make sure these errors do not happen again.”
However, according to the FBI Office of Internal Auditing, improper searches of U.S. citizens’ communications continue to occur.
Still, federal officials say that Section 702 is essential for thwarting terrorism and bolstering national defense. But with the law’s authorization set to expire on Dec. 31, they’ll need to convince Congress to agree—a feat that may be more challenging this year than it has been in the past.
Section 702 has faced heightened scrutiny in recent months from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who question whether the government can be trusted with such invasive investigative powers.
While trust in the intelligence community has substantially diminished among Republicans in recent years amid allegations of political bias, Democrats have expressed their own concerns when it comes to government surveillance.
“Since the last reauthorization of Section 702 in 2018, we’ve learned that the FBI conducts backdoor searches about Americans at an alarming scale,” Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Warren Davidson (D-Ohio) said on March 15 in a joint statement. “We cannot stand by while Section 702 surveillance and other spying programs carelessly violate Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights.”
Months later, when an unsealed court opinion revealed additional abuses of Section 702 targeting protesters and a U.S. congressional candidate, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was outraged.
“Section 702 exists only to protect the country from external threats to our national security,” Nadler said on May 19. “The government may only use it to target non-U.S. persons located outside of the United States. If the FBI insists on using it for routine domestic criminal investigations, without a warrant or probable cause, then perhaps they should not have access to this information at all.”
In March, Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.)—a reported victim of Section 702 abuse—was tapped to lead the House Intelligence Committee’s working group to reauthorize Section 702. But the congressman’s comments have made it clear that renewal will not come without reforms.
“Egregious FISA abuses by the FBI underscore the need for Congress to reform 702 to better protect the civil liberties of Americans,” he wrote in a May 19 tweet. “Our @HouseIntel 702 Working Group will continue to work towards reform that ensures these types of abuses never happen again.”
John Haughey, Zachary Steiber, Lawrence Wilson, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.