US lawmakers ask for disclosure of number of Americans under surveillance

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional committee on Friday asked the Trump administration to disclose an estimate of the number of Americans whose digital communications are incidentally collected under foreign surveillance programs, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

Such an estimate is "crucial as we contemplate reauthorization," of parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that are due to expire at the end of the year, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, and John Conyers, the panel's top Democrat, wrote in a letter addressed to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

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House Judiciary Committee -- members and hearings
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 05: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (2nd R) (R-VA) speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court April 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. Goodlatte and Sen. Steve Daines (L) (R-MT), Rep. Darrell Issa (R) (R-CA) and Rep. Doug Collins (2nd L) (R-GA) spoke in support of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on later this week. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) speaks with fellow members on the House floor on the first day of the new session of Congress in Washington, U.S. January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) (L) speaks with Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) (R) on the House floor on the first day of the new session of Congress in Washington, U.S. January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) (R) talks to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) (L) during a markup hearing before the House Judiciary Committee March 29, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a markup hearing on H.Res.184, Resolution of inquiry requesting the President and directing the Attorney General to transmit, respectively, certain documents to the House of Representatives relating to communications with the government of Russia; and H.Res.203, Resolution of inquiry requesting the President, and directing the Attorney General, to transmit, respectively, certain documents to the House of Representatives relating to certain communications by the President of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: (L-R) U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) participate in a markup hearing before the House Judiciary Committee March 29, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a markup hearing on H.Res.184, Resolution of inquiry requesting the President and directing the Attorney General to transmit, respectively, certain documents to the House of Representatives relating to communications with the government of Russia; and H.Res.203, Resolution of inquiry requesting the President, and directing the Attorney General, to transmit, respectively, certain documents to the House of Representatives relating to certain communications by the President of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, left, listens as Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina, questions Loretta Lynch, U.S. attorney general, not pictured, during a House Judiciary Committee in Washington. D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 12, 2016. Lynch rejected Republican demands to discuss her decision against prosecuting Hillary Clinton before a House panel whose chairman said the former secretary of state's careless handling of official communications may have jeopardized U.S. national security. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - JULY 12: Attorney General Loretta Lynch testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Rayburn Building on Justice Department issues ranging from recent domestic terrorist attacks to the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server, July 12, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 21: Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen arrives for a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill September 21, 2016 in Washington, DC. Despite the lack of evidence against him, Koskinen is facing impeachment threats from conservatives in the House of Representatives for his role in the destruction of computer backups containing thousands of emails sought by Congress in its investigation of political targeting. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, left, listens to counsel during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 24, 2016. The hearing is part of some Republican lawmakers' push to impeach International Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen for allegedly failing to cooperate with an investigation after the IRS reportedly targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) (L-R), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, talk with reporters outside the West Wing after meeting with senior White House staff about the current U.S. Supreme Court vacancy at the White House executive offices in Washington, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson arrives to testify before a House Judiciary committee hearing on the 'Oversight of the US Department of Homeland Security' on Capitol Hill in Washington July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
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The request comes as some Republican lawmakers, many of whom have stridently defended U.S. surveillance programs in the past, express sudden interest in considering additional privacy safeguards to how U.S. spy agencies collect and share intelligence that contains information about Americans.

That interest has been sparked by evolving, unsubstantiated assertions that the Obama White House used surveillance powers to improperly spy on the incoming Trump administration.

Privacy advocates have for years demanded that the U.S. government share an estimate of how many Americans are ensnared by programs authorized under a certain part of FISA, known as Section 702, that allows for the collection of vast quantities of internet communications from foreigners believed to be living overseas.

Some experts and lawmakers have said they believe data on millions of Americans could be caught under such surveillance, exposing them to warrantless searches by federal investigators.

"It is clear that Section 702 surveillance programs can and do collect information about U.S. persons, on subjects unrelated to counter-terrorism," wrote Goodlatte and Conyers, who requested a response by April 24. "It is imperative that we understand the size of this impact on U.S. persons as our committee proceeds with the debate on reauthorization."

In a separate letter sent last December to the outgoing Obama administration, members of the House Judiciary Committee said they were given assurances by officials that an estimate would be provided, likely by January of this year.

Richard Ledgett, the deputy director of the National Security Agency, said "yes" when asked by a Reuters reporter last month whether an estimate would be provided before year end. He also said about 20 "vignettes" would be publicly released that show the important national security value of Section 702, which officials have described as among the most important intelligence tools at their disposal.

Section 702 will expire on Dec. 31, 2017, absent congressional action.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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