Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have formed a working group to investigate “egregious abuses” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which has allegedly been used to illegally spy on millions of Americans.
The group will be led by Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), a congressman who claims to have been one of over 3.3 million Americans illegally spied on under FISA authority. The panel will be chaired by two other Republicans, Reps. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), as well as Democrat Reps. André Carson (D-Ind.), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), and Jason Crow (D-Colo.).
Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) called FISA section 702 “a top legislative priority” for the Intel Committee.
But, he added, “There have been significant and egregious abuses of Section 702 that have eroded the trust of the American people, putting FISA’s reauthorization at risk.”
At the time he made the comments, Turner was addressing a panel of intelligence leaders, who he said were primarily responsible for this dwindling trust.
“Our FISA Working Group, led by Representative Darin LaHood, is committed to finding bipartisan solutions to reform the Intelligence Community’s foreign surveillance tools,” Turner concluded.
Ranking Member Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the panel, praised the working group, suggesting it would help to ensure that both the homefront and Americans’ civil liberties will be respected.
“[I]t is our duty as Representatives to ensure that these authorities do not violate Americans’ constitutionally protected rights and to look at further reforms to protect those rights,” Himes told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement. “The six members of this working group encapsulated the thoughtful, pragmatic, bipartisan approach that will be essential to tackling one of the most important issues facing this Congress.”
At the same time, Himes praised section 702 as “a powerful tool that the Intelligence Community uses every day to prevent terrorist attacks, disrupt cyber attacks, and gain unique intelligence insights on foreign targets.”
He warned that allowing the provisions to lapse entirely with no replacement would be “deeply negligent” and would endanger U.S. national security.
Originally, FISA was intended as a safeguard of Americans’ civil liberties against the growing Cold War surveillance state. However, subsequent additions to the legislation, and broad interpretations of its provisions by the intelligence community, mean that the real-world use of the FISA has expanded well beyond this original intent.
A 2021 report ordered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)—the closed-door judicial body that grants broad surveillance authority to intelligence officials—revealed that the FBI had used the FISA to spy on more than 3.3 million Americans without a warrant.
The FISC expressed at the time the opinion that the U.S. intelligence community was “seriously and systematically abusing its warrantless electronic surveillance authority.” The watchdog also opined that federal agencies had been legally “noncompliant” and “overly broad.”
One of those millions of queries, the report revealed, was exercised against an unnamed person who was a sitting member of Congress when the query took place. During a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on March 9, LaHood expressed his belief that he was this person.
“I want to make clear the FBI’s inappropriate querying of a duly elected member of Congress is egregious and a violation not only that degrades the trust in FISA, but is viewed as a threat to the separation of powers,” LaHood said. “I have had the opportunity to review the classified summary of this violation, and it is my opinion that the member of Congress that was wrongfully queried multiple times solely by his name was in fact me.”
LaHood later told Fox News that his targeting “highlights the trust issue” Americans have with the intelligence community in regards to FISA section 702.
Specifically, intelligence officials relied on FISA section 702, a portion of text amended into the bill in 2008.
Section 702 nominally does not give the intel community the legal authority to spy on U.S. citizens. Under U.S. law, the FISA allows intelligence agencies to track the cell phone and text communications of suspected foreign agents.
Section 702 of the FISA reads: “The Attorney General (AG) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) may jointly authorize the targeting of (i) non-U.S. persons (ii) who are reasonably believed to be outside of the United States (iii) to acquire foreign intelligence information.”
However, this power can grant an expanding circle of possible searches to the FBI and other intel agencies, which can use the same power against U.S. citizens who had any interaction with targeted foreigners.
Nominally, this is illegal; Section 702 of the FISA authorizes surveillance only of foreign agents operating outside the United States. But concerns remain—particularly among Republicans ramping up an investigation into the weaponization of the federal government—about renewing this surveillance program.
Set to Expire in December
The most controversial surveillance tools in section 702 of the FISA are set to expire on Dec. 31, 2023, without congressional re-authorization.
The U.S. intelligence community has been open about their wish for Congress to re-authorize the disputed law.
To that end, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) announced during the March 9 hearing that Republicans would form a working group to investigate alleged FISA abuses.
Turner unveiled his plan to form a six-member working group, comprising three Republicans and three Democrats, to consider the issue of section 702’s renewal during the March 9 Intelligence hearing.
“Congress cannot reform FISA alone,” Turner said, telling the panelist of intelligence leaders that he hoped they would coordinate with the working group to renew FISA in a revised form “that safeguard[s] and guarantee[s] the rights of all U.S. citizens.”
“It is the actions of individuals in your organizations that have degraded the public trust that has ultimately put FISA at risk,” Turner added.
Attention has been focused more closely on FISA by Republicans’ probes into the “weaponization” of federal law enforcement, which seeks to catalog the ways that federal law enforcement agencies have gone well beyond their legal scope in the use of intelligence-gathering tools. Republicans have expressed concerns with granting a re-authorization for the legislation in view of these concerns.
Though the issue has returned to the limelight recently, this is not the first time that the FISA has been in the headlines.
The legislation first gained public attention in December 2005 following the publication of a New York Times article that showed that Bush since at least 2002 had carried out warrantless wiretapping within the United States. Another report from Bloomberg suggested that this expansive use of the FISA may have begun as early as 2000, before the terror attacks that purportedly made the measures necessary.
In late-2017, Congress was faced with a similar dispute.
It ultimately re-authorized section 702, and the renewal was signed into law by President Donald Trump after some initial opposition.
But in light of a series of GOP probes into the Department of Justice and FBI, the bill will face much tougher hurdles in receiving a congressional green light this time around.
From The Epoch Times