(Refiling to correct date in dateline)
By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON Dec 16 The U.S. intelligence
community has committed to providing as soon as next month a
public estimate of the number of U.S. persons whose electronic
communications are ensnared under a surveillance authority
intended for foreign espionage, according to a bipartisan group
of congressional lawmakers' letter that Reuters saw.
The decision would reverse the government's longstanding
position that calculating such a number may be technically
impossible and would require privacy intrusions exceeding those
raised by the actual surveillance programs.
It also comes as Congress is expected to begin debate in the
coming months over whether to reauthorize or reform the
surveillance authority, known as Section 702, a provision that
was added to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008.
The letter, sent on Friday to National Intelligence Director
James Clapper, said his office and National Security Agency
officials had briefed congressional staff about how the
intelligence community intends to comply with the lawmakers'
Clapper's office did not immediately respond to a request
The 11 lawmakers, all members of the U.S. House Judiciary
Committee, termed their letter an effort to "memorialize our
understanding" of the intelligence community's plan to provide
an estimate in real numbers, not percentages, as soon as January
that can be shared with the public.
"The timely production of this information is incredibly
important to informed debate on Section 702 in the next
Congress- and, without it, even those of us inclined to support
reauthorization would have reason for concern," the letter said.
Section 702 will expire on December 31, 2017, absent
congressional action. It enables two internet surveillance
programs called Prism and Upstream that were revealed in a
series of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden more
than three years ago.
Intelligence officials have said that data about Americans
is "incidentally" collected under Section 702, due to a range of
technical and practical reasons. Critics have assailed such
collection as back-door surveillance of Americans without a
Clapper, who is stepping down next month, suggested in April
that providing an estimate of Americans surveilled under Section
702, a figure some have said could tally in the millions, might
be possible, while defending the law as "a prolific producer of
Republicans James Sensenbrenner, Darrell Issa, Ted Poe and
Jason Chaffetz signed the letter, in addition to Democrats John
Conyers, Jerrold Nadler, Zoe Lofgren, Hank Johnson, Ted Deutch,
Suzan DelBene and David Cicilline.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)