WASHINGTON – A Republican lawmaker on Thursday accused the FBI of wrongly searching for his name in foreign surveillance data, underscoring the challenges ahead for U.S. officials trying to persuade Congress to renew their authorities to collect huge swaths of communications.
Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., did not say why the FBI may have searched his name in information collected under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act known as Section 702, and a spokesman for the lawmaker did not respond to a request for further clarification.
At a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, LaHood pressed FBI Director Chris Wray to acknowledge that his agency and others had at times violated the rules on the use of data collected through electronic snooping.
“We clearly have work to do, and we’re eager to do it with this committee, to show that we can be worthy stewards of these important authorities,” Wray said.
In a statement, the FBI said that though it could not comment on specific queries, it has made “extensive changes over the past few years” to address compliance issues. It has also offered LaHood a classified briefing to discuss the circumstances of the query, according to a person familiar with the situation who insisted on anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.
The White House and U.S. intelligence officials are pressing Congress to renew Section 702, which expires at this year’s end. They face sharp criticism both from Republicans who accuse the FBI of having abused surveillance powers against allies of former President Donald Trump and Democrats who believe there are insufficient protections of civil liberties.
Section 702 allows the U.S. to collect foreign communications without a warrant and query the data for a variety of reasons, from countering China to stopping terrorism and cyberattacks. The intelligence agencies end up incidentally collecting large amounts of emails and communications from U.S. citizens. They can access U.S. citizen data under strict rules for law enforcement and intelligence purposes, but the agencies have acknowledged violating those rules in some circumstances.
LaHood will lead an effort by House Republicans on the intelligence committee to recommend changes to Section 702. While he and other Republicans on the committee say they support the law, LaHood criticized those violations as making a renewal more difficult.
“There are far too many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that question whether the executive branch can be trusted with this powerful tool,” he said. “And that’s because in the past and currently, there’s been abuses and misuses of 702 by the FBI.”
LaHood cited a 2021 report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence on compliance that notes an instance of searches for data on an unnamed congressman. Officials evaluating the incident determined the searches were for a foreign intelligence purpose but were “overly broad” and therefore not compliant with agency rules.
Wray did not directly address LaHood's claim, but in its statement, the FBI said its changes included a new internal audit office focused on FISA compliance and new requirements governing particularly sensitive queries. Searches involving elected officials now require the approval of the deputy director, the FBI said.
Wray also said he was mindful of surveillance errors made during the FBI investigation into Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, which include bungled applications to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
A Justice Department inspector general report on that investigation “describes conduct that I considered totally unacceptable and unrepresentative of the FBI,” Wray told lawmakers Thursday, though he added that substantial reforms have been made since then.
Though those mistakes occurred under a different section of the law than the one that's up for renewal, the blowback from the errors have complicated FBI efforts to make the broader case for the reauthorization of Section 702.
The bureau made several compliance changes and also reformed how it searches Section 702 data, Wray said, adding that the numbers of U.S. citizen searches had fallen sharply over the last two years.
The White House launched an effort earlier this year to convince Congress that Section 702 powers are critical to U.S. intelligence. Top officials have given broad examples of successes under the program, saying that they used its data in the operation to kill al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri last year.
A key Democrat this week pushed the Biden administration to make a stronger case for the law. Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, told intelligence officials Wednesday that he and his colleagues are “going to push you to declassify more information so that we can again convince the American public.”