U.S. charges ex-intelligence analyst with leaking classified documents

FILE PHOTO: A police vehicle blocks an entrance into the National Security Administration (NSA) facility in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. March 30, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo/File Photo

By Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A former intelligence analyst was arrested on Thursday over allegations he illegally obtained and disclosed classified national defense information to a journalist, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

The analyst, Daniel Everette Hale, 31, of Nashville, Tennessee, had worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and began communicating with the reporter starting in 2013, the department said.

Classified documents were later published by the reporter’s online news outlet, the government alleged, without naming the publication or the journalist.

Reuters could not immediately determine the lawyer representing Hale.

The charges unsealed against Hale on Thursday marked the latest in a broad crackdown on media leaks by the Justice Department that started when Jeff Sessions was Attorney General.

During the Trump administration, the government has filed several criminal cases against leakers, including former intelligence analyst Reality Winner who divulged a report about Russian interference in the 2016 election to the Intercept news website.

Hale, who had served in the U.S. Air Force, is charged with five criminal counts, each carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, the Justice Department said.

According to the indictment, Hale was assigned to work at the NSA while serving on Air Force active duty from December 2011 to May 2013, and later that year also worked as a defense contractor assigned to the NGA.

In April 2013 while he was still at the NSA, prosecutors say Hale met a reporter at a book tour event in Washington.

The next month, Hale confided to a friend that the reporter wanted him to “tell my story about working with drones at the opening screening of (the reporter’s) documentary about the war and the use of drones,” according to the indictment.

The next month, Hale confided to a friend that the reporter wanted him to “tell my story about working with drones … and the use of drones,” according to the indictment.

After multiple meetings with the reporter, the government said, in February 2014 Hale printed six documents from his classified computer related to his work at NGA and then texted the reporter to see if they could meet in Washington.

The documents were later published by the reporter’s online news outlet, the indictment says.

Hale is accused of printing a total of 36 top secret documents from his computer, nine of which were related to his NGA work.

Of those, he allegedly provided 17 to the reporter or to the reporter’s news outlet.

Hale is due to make an initial appearance in federal court in Nashville on Thursday.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bill Trott)

Spy agency NSA triples collection of U.S. phone records: official report

FILE PHOTO: The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters is seen in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. National Security Agency collected 534 million records of phone calls and text messages of Americans last year, more than triple gathered in 2016, a U.S. intelligence agency report released on Friday said.

The sharp increase from 151 million occurred during the second full year of a new surveillance system established at the spy agency after U.S. lawmakers passed a law in 2015 that sought to limit its ability to collect such records in bulk.

The spike in collection of call records coincided with an increase reported on Friday across other surveillance methods, raising questions from some privacy advocates who are concerned about potential government overreach and intrusion into the lives of U.S. citizens.

The 2017 call records tally remained far less than an estimated billions of records collected per day under the NSA’s old bulk surveillance system, which was exposed by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

The records collected by the NSA include the numbers and time of a call or text message, but not their content.

Overall increases in surveillance hauls were both mystifying and alarming coming years after Snowden’s leaks, privacy advocates said.

“The intelligence community’s transparency has yet to extend to explaining dramatic increases in their collection,” said Robyn Greene, policy counsel at the Washington-based Open Technology Institute that focuses on digital issues.

The government “has not altered the manner in which it uses its authority to obtain call detail records,” Timothy Barrett, a spokesman at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which released the annual report, said in a statement.

The NSA has found that a number of factors may influence the amount of records collected, Barrett said. These included the number of court-approved selection terms, which could be a phone number of someone who is potentially the subject of an investigation, or the amount of historical information retained by phone service providers, Barrett said.

“We expect this number to fluctuate from year to year,” he said.

U.S. intelligence officials have said the number of records collected would include multiple calls made to or from the same phone numbers and involved a level of duplication when obtaining the same record of a call from two different companies.

Friday’s report also showed a rise in the number of foreigners living outside the United States who were targeted under a warrantless internet surveillance program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that Congress renewed earlier this year.

That figure increased to 129,080 in 2017 from 106,469 in 2016, the report said, and is up from 89,138 targets in 2013, or a cumulative rise over five years of about 45 percent.

U.S. intelligence agencies consider Section 702 a vital tool to protect national security but privacy advocates say the program incidentally collects an unknown number of communications belonging to Americans.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; editing by Grant McCool)

Shooting near U.S. National Security Agency, several injuried

: An aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. January 29, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

By Makini Brice

FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) – Several people were injured during a Wednesday morning shooting at the U.S. National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the agency said.

The incident occurred about 7 a.m. ET (1200 GMT) when a vehicle tried to enter the U.S. Army installation that houses the agency without authorization, the agency said in a statement. It said shots were fired but that none of the injuries appeared to have been caused by gunshots.

The statement did not make clear whether the shots had been fired by a suspect or by law enforcement and officials at the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the incident, did not respond to questions about who fired weapons.

“Weapons were discharged in the course of the incident, which remains under investigation,” the agency said in a statement. “The situation is under control and there is no ongoing security of safety threat.”

It said several people were taken to hospitals from the facility about 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Washington.

Police earlier had searched a black sport utility vehicle with what appeared to bullet holes in its windshield, according to video from the scene. Items apparently removed from the vehicle were strewn on the ground and checked by a police dog.

Earlier media reports said that as many as three people had been wounded at the base, which is the home of the NSA, as well as the U.S. Cyber Command and Defense Information School.

The National Security Agency/Central Security Service is one of the U.S. government’s main spy agencies. The secretive agency focuses on using technological tools, including the monitoring of internet traffic, to monitor the government’s adversaries.

A White House spokeswoman said President Donald Trump had been briefed on the shooting.

Fort Meade is located just off a major Washington-area highway and motorists occasionally unintentionally take the exit that leads them to its gates, which are manned by armed guards.

In March 2015, two people tried to drive their sports utility vehicle through the NSA’s heavily guarded gate. Officers shot at the vehicle when they refused to stop, killing one of the occupants. The people in the vehicle may have taken a wrong turn after partying and taking drugs, according to news reports.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey in Washington and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)

House to vote to renew NSA’s internet surveillance program

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in Berlin, June 7, 2013.

By Dustin Volz

(Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Thursday on whether to renew the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, which has been the target of privacy advocates who want to limit its impact on Americans.

The vote is the culmination of a yearslong debate in Congress on the proper scope of U.S. intelligence collection, one fueled by the 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance secrets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The bill would extend the NSA’s spying program for six years with minimal changes. Most lawmakers expect it to become law if it prevails in the House, although it still would require Senate approval and President Donald Trump’s signature.

Trump appeared on Thursday to initially question the merits of the program, contradicting the official White House position and renewing unsubstantiated allegations that the previous administration of Barack Obama improperly surveilled his campaign during the 2016 election.

“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” the president said in an early morning post on Twitter.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request to clarify Trump’s tweet but he posted a clarification less than two hours later.

“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!” Trump tweeted.

Unmasking refers to the largely separate issue of how Americans’ names kept secret in intelligence reports can be revealed.

Asked by a Reuters reporter at a conference in New York about Trump’s tweets, Rob Joyce, the top White House cyber official, said there was no confusion within Oval Office about the value of the surveillance program and that there have been no cases of it being used improperly for political purposes.

Some conservative, libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats were attempting to persuade colleagues to include more privacy protections. Those would include requiring a warrant before the NSA or other intelligence agencies could scrutinize communications belonging to Americans whose data is incidentally collected under the program.

The White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican leaders in Congress have said they consider the tool indispensable and in need of little or no revision.

Without congressional action, legal support for Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the program, will expire next week, although intelligence officials say it could continue through April.

Section 702 allows the NSA to eavesdrop on vast amounts of digital communications from foreigners living outside the United States through U.S. companies such as Facebook Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google.

The spying program also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas, and can search those messages without a warrant.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)

Ex-U.S. NSA employee pleads guilty to taking classified documents

Ex-U.S. NSA employee pleads guilty to taking classified documents

By Dustin Volz and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A former U.S. National Security Agency employee pleaded guilty on Friday to illegally taking classified information outside the spy agency that an intelligence official said was later stolen from his home computer by Russian hackers.

Nghia Hoang Pho, who worked in the NSA’s elite hacking unit, retained U.S. government documents containing top-secret national defense information between 2010 and March 2015, the Justice Department said.

Pho, a 67-year-old U.S. citizen born in Vietnam, faces up to 10 years in prison. He is not being held by authorities as he awaits his sentencing, which is scheduled for April 6, 2018, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Pho was the same NSA employee who had been identified in media reports for using Kaspersky Lab antivirus software on his home computer. Some U.S. officials have said software from the Moscow-based company allowed Russian intelligence agencies to pilfer sensitive secrets from the United States through Pho’s computer.

The Department of Homeland Security in September ordered federal agencies to start removing Kaspersky software from their computers. U.S. officials have said the firm either has ties to Russian intelligence or is forced to share information held on its servers with Russian officials. Kaspersky has repeatedly denied the allegations but acknowledged its software in 2014 took NSA code for a hacking tool from a customer’s computer before its chief executive, Eugene Kaspersky, ordered the code destroyed.

The court documents do not appear to make mention of Russian intelligence agencies or Kaspersky Lab. The connection was first reported by the New York Times.

The intelligence official declined to comment on whether Pho knew the software he was using at home was vulnerable.

Pho is at least the third NSA employee or contractor to be charged within the past two years on counts of improperly taking classified information from the agency, breaches that have prompted criticism of the secretive NSA.

A federal grand jury indicted former NSA contractor Harold Martin in February on charges alleging he spent up to 20 years stealing up to 50 terabytes of highly sensitive government material from the U.S. intelligence community, which were hoarded at his home.

In June another NSA contractor, Reality Winner, 25, was charged with leaking classified material about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to a news outlet. She pleaded not guilty.

And in 2013, former contractor Edward Snowden pilfered secrets about NSA’s surveillance programs and shared them with journalists. He now lives in Moscow.

Pho, of Ellicott City, Maryland, took both physical and digital documents that contained “highly classified information of the United States,” including information labeled as “top secret,” according to court records unsealed Friday. He was aware the documents contained sensitive information and kept them at his residence in Maryland, the records said.

Asked for comment, Pho’s attorney, Robert Bonsib, said, “Any conversations regarding this case will be made in the courtroom during the sentencing.” He declined to comment further.

Officials at the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The NSA, whose main mission is gathering and analyzing foreign communications for potential security threats, is based at Fort Meade, Maryland.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz and John Walcott, additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)

U.S. House panel advances bill aimed at limiting NSA spying program

U.S. House panel advances bill aimed at limiting NSA spying program

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. House panel on Wednesday passed legislation seeking to overhaul some aspects of the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, overcoming criticism from civil liberties advocates that it did not include enough safeguards to protect Americans’ privacy.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 27-8 to approve the bill, which would partially restrict the U.S. government’s ability to review American data collected under the foreign intelligence program by requiring a warrant in some cases.

Lawmakers in both parties were sharply divided over whether the compromise proposal to amend what is known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would enshrine sufficient privacy protections or possibly grant broader legal protections for the NSA’s surveillance regime.

“The ultimate goal here is to reauthorize a very important program with meaningful and responsible reforms,” Republican Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the committee, said. “If we do not protect this careful compromise, all sides of this debate risk losing.”

Passage of the House bill sets up a potential collision with two separate pieces of legislation advancing in the U.S. Senate, one favored by privacy advocates and one considered more acceptable to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Congress must renew Section 702 in some form before Dec. 31 or the program will expire.

U.S. intelligence officials consider Section 702 among the most vital of tools at their disposal to thwart threats to national security and American allies.

It allows the NSA to collect vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside the United States.

But the program, classified details of which were exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, incidentally gathers communications of Americans for a variety of technical reasons, including if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas. Those communications can then be subject to searches without a warrant, including by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The House bill, known as the USA Liberty Act, partially restricts the FBI’s ability to review American data collected under Section 702 by requiring the agency to obtain a warrant when seeking evidence of crime.

It does not mandate a warrant in other cases, such as requests for data related to counterterrorism or counter-espionage.

The committee rejected an amendment offered by Republican Representative Ted Poe and Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren that would have generally required all searches of U.S. data collected through Section 702 to require a warrant. In 2014 and 2015 the full House of Representatives voted with strong bipartisan support to adopt such a measure, though it never became law.

“We have created a measure that has actually taken us backwards in terms of constitutional rights,” Lofgren said.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; editing by James Dalgleish)

Kaspersky says it obtained suspected NSA hacking code from U.S. computer

Kaspersky says it obtained suspected NSA hacking code from U.S. computer

By Joseph Menn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab on Wednesday acknowledged that its security software had taken source code for a secret American hacking tool from a personal computer in the United States.

The admission came in a statement from the embattled company that described preliminary results from an internal inquiry it launched into media reports that the Russian government used Kaspersky anti-virus software to collect National Security Agency technology.

While the explanation is considered plausible by some security experts, U.S. officials who have been campaigning against using Kaspersky software on sensitive computers are likely to seize on the admission that the company took secret code that was not endangering its customer to justify a ban.

Fears about Kaspersky’s ties to Russian intelligence, and the capacity of its anti-virus software to sniff out and remove files, prompted an escalating series of warnings and actions from U.S. authorities over the past year. They culminated in the Department of Homeland Security last month barring government agencies from using Kaspersky products.

In a statement, the company said it stumbled on the code a year earlier than the recent newspaper reports had it, in 2014. It said logs showed that the consumer version of Kaspersky’s popular product had been analyzing questionable software from a U.S. computer and found a zip file that was flagged as malicious.

While reviewing the file’s contents, an analyst discovered it contained the source code for a hacking tool later attributed to what Kaspersky calls the Equation Group. The analyst reported the matter to Chief Executive Eugene Kaspersky, who ordered that the company’s copy of the code be destroyed, the company said.

“Following a request from the CEO, the archive was deleted from all our systems,” the company said. It said no third parties saw the code, though the media reports had said the spy tool had ended up in Russian government hands.

The Wall Street Journal said on Oct. 5 that hackers working for the Russian government appeared to have targeted the NSA worker by using Kaspersky software to identify classified files. The New York Times reported on Oct. 10 that Israeli officials reported the operation to the United States after they hacked into Kaspersky’s network.

Kaspersky did not say whether the computer belonged to an NSA worker who improperly took home secret files, which is what U.S. officials say happened. Kaspersky denied the Journal’s report that its programs searched for keywords including “top secret.”

The company said it found no evidence that it had been hacked by Russian spies or anyone except the Israelis, though it suggested others could have obtained the tools by hacking into the American’s computer through a back door it later spotted there.

The new 2014 date of the incident is intriguing, because Kaspersky only announced its discovery of an espionage campaign by the Equation Group in February 2015. At that time, Reuters cited former NSA employees who said that Equation Group was an NSA project.

Kaspersky’s Equation Group report was one of its most celebrated findings, since it indicated that the group could infect firmware on most computers. That gave the NSA almost undetectable presence.

Kaspersky later responded via email to a question by Reuters to confirm that the company had first discovered the so-called Equation Group programs in the spring of 2014.

It also did not say how often it takes uninfected, non-executable files, which normally would pose no threat, from users’ computers.

Former employees told Reuters in July that the company used that technique to help identify suspected hackers. A Kaspersky spokeswoman at the time did not explicitly deny the claim but complained generally about “false allegations.”

After that, the stories emerged suggesting that Kaspersky was a witting or unwitting partner in espionage against the United States.

Kaspersky’s consumer anti-virus software has won high marks from reviewers.

It said Monday that it would submit the source code of its software and future updates for inspection by independent parties.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing by Jim Finkle and Eric Auchard)

Senators push bill requiring warrant for U.S. data under spy law

Senators push bill requiring warrant for U.S. data under spy law

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bipartisan group of at least 10 U.S. senators plans to introduce on Tuesday legislation that would substantially reform aspects of the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, according to congressional aides.

The effort, led by Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Rand Paul, would require a warrant for queries of data belonging to any American collected under the program. The bill’s introduction is likely to add uncertainty to how Congress will renew a controversial portion of a spying law due to expire on Dec. 31.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is considered by U.S. intelligence officials to be among their most vital tools used to combat national and cyber security threats and help protect American allies.

It allows U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on and store vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside the United States.

The surveillance program, classified details of which were exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans, including if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas.

Those communications can then be subject to searches without a warrant, including by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a practice that the USA Rights Act authored by Wyden and Paul would end.

The measure is expected to be introduced with support from a wide berth of civil society groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and FreedomWorks, a Wyden spokesman said.

It would renew Section 702 for four years with additional transparency and oversight provisions, such as allowing individuals to more easily raise legal challenges against the law and expand the oversight jurisdiction of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a government privacy watchdog.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives earlier this month introduced legislation seeking to add privacy protections to Section 702, including a partial restriction to the FBI’s ability to access U.S. data when seeking evidence of a crime.

But that was criticized by privacy groups as too narrow.

Separately, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to privately vote on Tuesday on a bill to reauthorize Section 702 that privacy advocates say will lack their reform priorities.

Wyden sent a letter on Monday urging committee leaders to allow a public vote, saying the bill “will have enormous impact on the security, liberty, and constitutional rights of the American people” and should be debated in the open.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.S. lawmakers want to restrict internet surveillance on Americans

U.S. lawmakers want to restrict internet surveillance on Americans

By Dustin Volz

(Reuters) – A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers unveiled legislation on Wednesday that would overhaul aspects of the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program in an effort to install additional privacy protections.

The bill, which will be formally introduced as soon as Thursday, is likely to revive debate in Washington over the balance between security and privacy, amid concerns among some lawmakers in both parties that the U.S. government may be too eager to spy on its own citizens.

The legislation, written by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, is seen by civil liberties groups as the best chance in Congress to reform the law, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, before its expiration on Dec. 31.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials consider Section 702 to be among the most vital tools they have to thwart threats to national security and American allies.

It allows U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on and store vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside the United States.

But the program, classified details of which were exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans, including if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas. Those communications can then be subject to searches without a warrant by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A discussion draft of the legislation, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, partially restricts the FBI’s ability to access American data collected under Section 702 by requiring the agency to obtain a warrant when seeking evidence of a crime.

That limit would not apply, however, to requests of data that involve counterterrorism or counter-espionage.

The narrower restriction on what some have called a “backdoor search loophole” has disappointed some civil liberties groups. Several organizations sent a letter this week saying they would not support legislation that did not require a warrant for all queries of American data collected under Section 702.

The legislation would also renew the program for six years and codify the National Security Agency’s decision earlier this year to halt the collection of communications that merely mentioned a foreign intelligence target. But that codification would end in six years as well, meaning NSA could potentially resume the activity in 2023.

The spy agency has said it lost some operational capability by ending so-called “about” collection due to privacy compliance issues and has lobbied against a law that would make its termination permanent.

Republican senators introduced a bill earlier this year to renew Section 702 without changes and make it permanent, a position backed by the White House and intelligence agencies.

But that effort is expected to face major resistance in the House, where an influential conservative bloc of Republicans earlier this year said it opposed renewal unless major changes were made, reflecting disagreement within the majority party.

Separately, Senators John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein are working on Section 702 legislation that may also be introduced this week and include fewer reforms.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Rand Paul are also planning to introduce a bill that would require a warrant for any query of Section 702 involving data belonging to an American.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)

NSA says it would need to scale down spying program ahead of expiration

FILE PHOTO: An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski/Illustration/File photo

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. National Security Agency would need to begin winding down what it considers its most valuable intelligence program before its expiration at year-end if the U.S. Congress leaves its reauthorization in limbo, the agency’s deputy director said on Friday.

The possibility the U.S. government may begin losing access to the surveillance authority even before it would officially lapse on Dec. 31 is likely to increase pressure on lawmakers to quickly renew the law.

“We would have to be looking to work with our mission partners in the government as well as the companies to start scaling down in advance,” George Barnes, the deputy director of the NSA, said at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security event.

“We would, definitely. The last thing we would want to do is conduct any operation … if we did not have an active statute in place,” Barnes said in response to a question asked by Reuters. “We would have to work the dates backwards to make sure we didn’t cross the line.”

Asked about the remarks by Barnes, an NSA spokesman said the agency fully expects Congress to reauthorize the program.

The law, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on, and store vast amounts of, digital communications from foreign suspects living outside of the United States.

It is considered a critical national security tool by U.S. officials, who say it supports priorities ranging from counterterrorism to cyber security.

But the program, classified details of which were exposed by 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans for a variety of technical reasons, including if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas. Those communications can then be subject to searches from analysts without a warrant.

The scenario articulated by Barnes resembles one that occurred two years ago, when portions of a separate law, the Patriot Act, that allowed the NSA to collect bulk domestic phone metadata were expiring.

Gridlocked over whether to enact reforms, U.S. lawmakers briefly let that Patriot Act lapse. The NSA said it had to begin winding down the program about a week before its expiration.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress is working on legislation to reform aspects of Section 702, but many Republicans, supported by the White House, want to renew the law without changes and make it permanent.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)