How Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Section 702 helps protect America’s heartland

September 1, 2023 3:00 am

FBI Omaha Special Agent in Charge Eugene Kowel in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of the FBI Omaha office)

Fourteen years ago this month, I deployed to Afghanistan on behalf of the FBI. As improvised explosive devices detonated in Kabul, I responded to the scene of fatal terrorist attacks, collecting evidence, coordinating with U.S. soldiers and local Afghan police and talking to subjects in custody. My partners and I drove around the region in an up-armored Toyota 4-Runner, gleaning intelligence from human sources and building partnerships with Afghan law enforcement to identify those responsible and degrade their ability to commit subsequent attacks.

What was an FBI agent doing deployed to a combat zone thousands of miles away from home? The same thing we do in the U.S. every day — collecting evidence and intelligence to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution.

When I joined the FBI, I aspired to investigate violent gangs, organized crime, corrupt public officials and acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. Within a few years of graduating from Quantico, I found myself deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan and traveling to countries like Spain, Belgium, India and El Salvador. Why? Because the FBI realized a long time ago that to fight terrorism, to combat drug trafficking, to dismantle organized crime, to arrest fugitives, to target child predators, we can’t wait for threats to appear in the homeland. The security of the U.S depends on the FBI having a forward-leaning overseas presence, working with our international partners to exchange intelligence and mitigate threats before they strike our shores.

The FBI began stationing agents across the globe during World War II. We maintain a robust presence in over 70 countries today. As national security threats evolve, additional avenues of learning about threats emanating from overseas are often as essential as our physical presence. One of those avenues is Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Section 702, a tool we use to protect our communities here in Nebraska and Iowa from international terrorists, malicious cyber actors and hostile nations.

FBI Omaha Special Agent in Charge Eugene Kowel in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of the FBI Omaha office)

Section 702 authority allows the U.S. to collect intelligence on non-U.S. targets, outside the United States, for foreign intelligence purposes. It’s an indispensable way to identify, investigate and mitigate threats originating from foreign adversaries.

Section 702 allows us to lawfully run queries sorting and filtering information collected on individuals overseas. It can help identify who a foreign-based terrorist may be talking to here in our country, facilitating our identification of their network and potential targets.

Querying of Section 702-acquired information is a key tool agents and analysts in Nebraska and Iowa can use to identify links between foreign threats and targets here in our own neighborhoods, using lawfully obtained information already contained within U.S. government holdings.

Analogous to the work I did on the ground in Afghanistan, Section 702 is a tool we can use to collect foreign intelligence on a terrorist in Afghanistan — someone located overseas who is not a U.S. citizen and not entitled to U.S. constitutional protections. Section 702 has helped the FBI identify threats to U.S. troops and disrupt planned terrorist attacks at home and abroad. In one example last year, use of Section 702 authorities contributed to the United States’ successful operation against terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Section 702 has also emerged as a critical tool when a suspected foreign actor launches a cyberattack. We can use our authorities to quickly determine which of our foreign adversaries has hit us, identify and contact U.S. victims who may not know they’ve been compromised and warn those who may be targeted next. Section 702 provides the agility and rapid response we need in a digital environment where subjects can shift to new communication platforms in minutes.

Whether you live in Scottsbluff, Omaha, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, or points in between, one thing is clear — the cyber threat to our businesses, farms and communities in Iowa and Nebraska is increasing exponentially. Today’s cyber threats are more pervasive, hit a wider variety of victims and carry the potential for greater damage than ever before.

Our farms, ranches and agricultural industry in Nebraska and Iowa leverage world-class technology and innovation to provide food, feed and biofuel to communities around the globe. And like many industries, our agricultural sector has also become increasingly reliant on networks and the storage of data in the cloud. Section 702 information can help us respond swiftly to cyberattacks on our nation’s food production, especially during crucial periods of planting and harvesting.

Section 702-acquired information has already been used to identify foreign ransomware attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure, in some cases preventing significant attacks on U.S. networks.

Section 702 information can also help us halt the recruitment of spies and theft of our data, information and innovation by foreign adversaries like the People’s Republic of China.

The FISA 702 statute is pending renewal this year in Congress. Without Section 702 authority, our ability to respond to threats like the ones described above will diminish.

I arrived home from Afghanistan two days before Christmas in 2009. Profound change has transpired in the intervening decade. The threats we face have evolved significantly. What hasn’t changed is the FBI’s commitment to protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution. And one critical tool we use in those simultaneous endeavors is our Section 702 authority.

While I’m proud of how scrupulously, prudently and judiciously our field office uses the authority, we fully acknowledge the bureau has had problems in past years that were unacceptable. We understand Congress will need to pair reauthorization with reforms ensuring 702 is used properly and responsibly. The FBI is committed to working with Congress to improve the authority so it can better protect both national security AND civil liberties.

In my current role leading the FBI’s Omaha Field Office, I know how much this tool can help protect the citizens of Nebraska and Iowa. It’s clear there is no way to replicate Section 702’s speed, reliability, specificity and insight. From our vantage point here in the American heartland, conscientiously deploying our Section 702 authority is critical to ensuring the safety and security of our community.

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Eugene Kowel
Eugene Kowel

Eugene Kowel joined the FBI as a special agent in 2005. He now serves as the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Omaha field office, which covers Iowa and Nebraska.