As the United States Congress sets to review one of the most controversial surveillance laws on the country’s books, the National Security Agency (NSA) quietly began handing out a massive contract for a secretive program.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally asked Congress Monday to reauthorize Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in order to allow current surveillance programs to continue operations.
At the heart of the issue is a key law, Section 702, that grants the NSA the ability to tap the communications of foreigners located overseas. The spying initiative is ostensibly for intelligence and security purposes and intelligence officials claim it is crucial to preventing terrorist attacks.
Section 702 was passed in 2008 in order to give intelligence agencies within the U.S. the ability to legally gather intelligence and conduct surveillance on non-citizens living overseas but communicating on the networks of U.S. telecommunications companies.
The law will not gain reauthorization without some protest that may prove enough to strike down the primary provision, given the growing amount of criticism it has faced in recent years.
One of the leading voices of dissent on Section 702 has come from Senator Ron Wyden, D-Or. A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden believes the NSA has used the law to collect incidental data on millions of Americans who are in no way related to targets of the NSA.
"How many innocent law-abiding Americans have been swept up in this program that has been written and developed to target foreigners overseas?" he wrote in a statement earlier this year. "Congress's judgment about the impact of section 702 depends on getting this number."
While Wyden and his colleagues debate the merits of the surveillance law, the NSA has quietly launched a massive new initiative that will reportedly hand out more than $2.4 billion to technology firms over the next decade, NextGov reported.
The first chunk of the massive, three-part contract was granted to CSRA, an information technology services company that works with government agencies on a number of projects but is most heavily involved in national security ventures.
CSRA will begin work on a classified NSA program known as Groundbreaker. The details on the program are few for the time being, though it appears it can be traced back as far as 2001 and is likely an effort to outsource the NSA’s IT operations.
At the time, then-NSA director Michael Hayden said the program would allow NSA to “refocus assets on the agency’s core missions of providing foreign signals intelligence and protecting U.S. national security-related information systems by turning over several information technology infrastructure services for industry’s purview.”
It is unclear how, if at all, the Groundbreaker program would be affected by the pending reauthorization of Section 702. The program will likely continue regardless of the outcome of the Congressional debate over the law.