Russia Probe Highlights FBI Changes 12/13 06:36
Israelis grappled Thursday with the confounding reality of unprecedented
third national elections in less than a year, after Parliament was dissolved
and the date for the next vote was set further extending months of
political paralysis that has gripped the country.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Revelations that the FBI committed serious errors in
wiretapping a former Trump campaign aide have spurred bipartisan calls for
change to the government's surveillance powers, including from some Republicans
who in the past have voted to renew or expand those authorities.
Anger over the errors cited in this week's Justice Department's inspector
general's report of the Russia investigation has produced rare consensus from
Democrats and Republicans who otherwise have had sharply different
interpretations of the report's findings. The inspector general said the FBI
was justified in investigating ties between the campaign and Russia, but
criticized how the investigation was conducted.
The report cited flaws and omissions in the government's warrant
applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, documenting
problems with a surveillance program that Democrats and civil libertarians have
long maintained is opaque, intrusive and operates with minimal oversight.
They've now been joined by Republicans who are irate that FBI officials did not
supply key information to judges when they applied to eavesdrop on former Trump
aide Carter Page.
"I'm still trying to get my arms around the proposition that a whole bunch
of conservative Republicans who've logged years blocking bipartisan FISA
reforms are now somehow privacy hawks," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
It's unclear what steps, if any, Congress could or will take to rein in the
FBI's power under the surveillance law, and it remains to be seen whether
outrage over the way a Trump ally was treated will extend to less overtly
Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who has recommended changes, said his
office will conduct an audit of how the FBI applies for warrants from the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. FBI Director Christopher Wray said the
bureau is making its own changes to ensure more accuracy and completeness in
warrant applications. That includes tightening up layers of review and
"I think we're entrusted with very significant power and authority. The FISA
statute provides the FBI with absolutely indispensable tools that keep 325
million Americans safe everyday," Wray told The Associated Press on Monday.
"But with that significant power and authority comes a responsibility to be
scrupulously accurate and careful, and I think that's what the FBI does best."
The 1978 law authorizes the FBI to monitor the communications of people on
U.S. soil they suspect of being agents of a foreign power, such as potential
terrorists or spies. Unlike criminal wiretaps, the FBI need not have probable
cause that a crime was committed to obtain a warrant. In Page's case, officials
suspected that he was being targeted for Russian government recruitment though
he was never accused by the FBI of wrongdoing.
Last year, the House Intelligence Committee gave the public an unprecedented
peek into the secret process as it released dueling memos about the Page
warrant, part of the partisan dispute over special counsel Robert Mueller's
Most of the surveillance applications do not result in criminal charges.
When they do, there's no presumed right for a defendant to see the document
themselves. Judges can order prosecutors to share FISA information with
defendants if they deem it necessary for challenging a search's legality, but
courts consistently have said disclosing the material could expose intelligence
"The absolute lack of any potential for adversarial testing at any point in
the process creates an environment where sloppiness and corner-cutting is so
much more likely," said Elizabeth Goitein, who co-directs the Brennan Center
for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program.
Another criticism of the surveillance court has been that it's seen as a
virtual rubber-stamp for government requests, with almost all applications
approved. Justice Department documents show the government filed 1,081
applications requesting electronic surveillance under FISA in 2018. One was
withdrawn and only one other was rejected in full.
The requests to wiretap Page, originally made in the fall of 2016 and then
renewed three times after that, included what the inspector general said were
17 flaws and omissions.
According to Horowitz, the FBI failed to update the court as it learned new
information that could have undercut some of the original assertions it made
about Page. Agents, for instance, did not disclose that questions had been
raised about the reliability of a source whose reporting had been relied on in
obtaining the warrant, nor that a Trump campaign aide had denied to an
informant that anyone in the campaign was coordinating with Russia.
Those omissions are problematic, though not necessarily surprising, Goitein
"Investigators become wedded to their theories of the case and invested in
the success of their investigations," she said.
For Republican senators, even self-proclaimed hawkish ones who supported
FISA as a powerful counterterrorism tool in a post-9/11 era, the problems
detailed by Horowitz were enough for them to demand change.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, invoked the
specter of J. Edgar Hoover, the longest-serving FBI director whose tenure
included repeated civil liberties abuses.
"I'd hate to lose the ability of the FISA court to operate at a time
probably when we need it the most," Graham, R-S.C., told Horowitz. "But after
your report, I have serious concerns about whether the FISA court can continue
unless there is fundamental reform."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he had warned for years that the FISA statute
was ripe for abuse and that "it's not a question of if, but it's when and how
soon will government officials get caught doing it."
Wyden said he would like to see new alliances.
"I've always felt that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive ---
that smart policies get you more of both and not so-so-smart policies get you
less of both," he added.