How Congress’ Anger at the FBI May Shape the Future of Surveillance Programs

by Joshua Brown
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The FBI is facing a lot of anger from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. This makes it harder for the American intelligence organizations that want to keep collecting emails, phone calls, and other foreign information even if this includes conversations with Americans.

Important politicians say they won’t support programs which end this year that are part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act without important changes related to the FBI. Some people have blamed problems with how FBI agents search for American citizens using the Section 702, due to their mistakes in different intelligence investigations.

Since 2018, when the law was renewed, it has been revealed that the FBI didn’t tell the truth when they asked court judges to wiretap a person who worked with Donald Trump’s campaign team in 2016. In addition, FBI agents didn’t follow rules and regulations while looking up information in their databases about a member of the House Intelligence Committee, a local political party, and people from the Middle East.

The last two judges who were in charge of the U.S’s main spying court were not happy with how the FBI investigated things relating to Russian interference with the election. One of them said that because they made so many mistakes, it makes us doubt if all their investigations were true.

The debate is really important for U.S. intelligence officials, because it has to do with the law that helps them prevent terrorism, spies, and cyberattacks. The National Security Agency gathered 59% of the information given daily to President Joe Biden last year using Section 702.

Recently, several secret Pentagon documents were put online for public viewing. These files contain information about allies and enemies of the United States and it’s all collected from something called “signals intelligence”.

The Representative of Ohio and Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner said that Section 702 is helpful in keeping Americans safe and protecting US soldiers overseas. He also added that there should be changes in order for the FBI to not misuse or take advantage of this important national security action.

Congresspeople Pramila Jayapal from Washington and Warren Davidson from Ohio said in a joint statement that the FBI was looking for a LOT of Americans and that there should be a big change to how the program works.

The FBI says it uses things like foreign messages to help protect the U.S. They also have rules that agents have to follow when looking for information about Americans. This year, they made sure their computer systems were up-to-date and started training their agents on how to properly do searches.

If you want to do a search that gets more than 100 results, you first need the okay from an FBI lawyer. The deputy director also needs to say yes if you are wanting to search the profiles of people like politicians and other US public officials because it’s called “sensitive queries”.

FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress in March that the FBI had made some mistakes, but he believes the agency has learned from them. Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut agreed and wanted these changes to be implemented into a new law.

Congressman Himes said that some Republicans have gotten angry with the FBI because they have been investigating President Trump, including carrying out a search of his Florida home.

According to Himes in an interview, this anger at the FBI has become a shared belief in the Republican party.

The U.S. government can access foreign communications without a warrant thanks to Section 702. They get help from American telecom companies to build up databases. These can allow them to gain intelligence on people outside the U.S., but they are not allowed to try and get info on US citizens or foreigners inside America or use foreigners as a way of finding out information about US citizens.

A lot of people are worried that the FBI might be looking at American’s conversations without their permission. In 2021, there were 3.4 million searches of Section 702 data by the FBI. But last year that number dropped to 200,000.

Patrick Toomey, who works at the American Civil Liberties Union in charge of national security, said that Section 702 is now being used by the FBI for spying on people. He also mentioned that although the rules for these kinds of searches are very loose, FBI agents still sometimes break them. That’s why Congress should require a warrant to protect citizens from these violations by the FBI.

Some politicians want the FBI to get special permission (called a warrant) for each search of Section 702 data. But people in charge of national security disagree. They say asking for a lot of warrants would cause a lot of trouble and make it harder to use the program.

Most of the Republicans in the House Intelligence Committee want to make it a crime for someone to lie on purpose when asking the surveillance court for permission. Several people, who don’t want their names used, know about their plans and talked about them.

Some people, including Republican Rep. Chris Stewart from Utah, think the FBI isn’t punishing its agents enough when they misbehave and aren’t answering questions about it. Rep. Stewart said that government must put some reforms in place so people can trust them again.

An FBI person in a top position wouldn’t say how many agents have been fired or punished for breaking the rules. But, they did tell us that it is really rare for an agent to act badly on purpose. They talked about this with us, but we had to promise not to tell anyone else what was said.

Politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties have thought about making judges on the super secret court, which approves wiretaps and other annual intelligence rules, serve longer terms. They also want staff to write down what happens in court hearings for appeals. Plus, they would like special outsiders (called “amicus curiae”) to help argue versus FBI requests at this court.

Members of Congress might try to extend the law for a little while longer so they can work on changes in the future. But at this moment, it’s hard to know what will happen with it.

Rep. Jason Crow from Colorado told us that it is vital for Congress not to get rid of this program because we need it and if it goes away, there are lots of things we won’t be able to see anymore.

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