Every year, US Congress must pass a new Intelligence Authorization Act to continue funding Uncle Sam's spies for the next 12 months. This year, the act passed, as expected, the committee stage smoothly with only one minor bump in the road: Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Wyden objected to a clause in the bill [PDF] that described WikiLeaks as a "non-state hostile intelligence service," which was inserted after the website pissed off enough people in government. The wording would give the intelligence services more power to investigate the site and its founder Julian "I'm not in a cupboard" Assange.
This isn't to say Wyden is defending Assange: the senator fears journalists will also be labeled hostile intelligence services for embarrassing the administration.
"My concern is that the use of the novel phrase 'non-state hostile intelligence service' may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets," said Senator Wyden.
"The language in the bill suggesting that the US government has some unstated course of action against 'non-state hostile intelligence services' is equally troubling. The damage done by WikiLeaks to the United States is clear. But with any new challenge to our country, Congress ought not react in a manner that could have negative consequences, unforeseen or not, for our constitutional principles."
In the end, the act passed the Senate intelligence committee in a vote of 14-1. You can easily guess which side Wyden took.
The senator did, however, manage to get three amendments into the bill, one of which could stymie President Trump's suggestion that the US and Russia should join forces on a cybercrime unit to investigate hacking. If such a scheme is mooted, Congress will have to be informed as to what intelligence is shared and how. The President backtracked on that idea, for what it's worth.
Wyden's second amendment is about mounting fears over hacking mobile phones via SS7 protocol flaws that can turn any mobe into a spy in your pocket. The amendment requires the intelligence agencies to report any evidence that foreign powers are using the SS7 flaw for surveillance purposes.
Finally, Wyden's third amendment will require US intelligence officials to work with the Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence on a report into Russian money laundering in the US. Such data could be very useful in the ongoing probe into possible Putin interference in the last US elections.
The tweaked proposed funding legislation will now be submitted to the House of Representatives and the Senate for their approval and modifications. Whether the amendments survive all the way is up to Congress, and whether Trump signs it is up to him. ®