Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) on March 9 suggested that he was the subject of an unlawful Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) query.
The lawmaker made the comments during a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on global threats.
In a 2021 report ordered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)—the closed-door judicial body that grants broad surveillance authority to intelligence officials—it was revealed that the FBI had used the FISA to spy on over 3.3 million Americans without a warrant.
One of the more than three million queries, the report revealed, was exercised against an unnamed person who was a sitting member of Congress when the query took place. During the hearing, LaHood expressed the 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.”
The FISC-ordered report revealed that an unnamed intelligence analyst had conducted a redacted quantity of queries “using only the name of a U.S. congressman.”
The report ruled these queries to be “noncompliant” with legal requirements and “overly broad.”
The FISA, which initially passed Congress in 1978 as a safeguard for Americans’ civil liberties, grants intelligence agencies limited authority to gather foreign intelligence information by collecting suspected foreign actors’ cell phone metadata, communications, and other information considered pertinent to national security.
The modern-day FISA, which was substantially expanded in 2008, contains a controversial 9/11-era provision—section 702 of the bill—granting intelligence agencies broad authority to spy on both foreign and domestic actors. Many Republicans accuse have accused the intelligence community of using these powers to go after political opponents, violating Americans’ core legal rights
The renewal of section 702 of the FISA, which is currently set to expire on Dec. 31, 2023, has been a key priority for intelligence officials.
‘FISA Has Been Abused’: Turner
Dwindling public trust was a key issue for House Republicans during a March 9 hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, as Republicans discussed the U.S. government’s intelligence-gathering tools and grilled leaders on their internal methods for ensuring the fair execution of the law.
Committee Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) gaveled in the hearing with a reference to section 702 of the FISA, which he said was “essential” but has since been subject to a series of abuses.
“There have been and continue to be many abuses of FISA. It must be reformed.”
Turner unveiled plans to form a six-member working group, composed of three Republicans and three Democrats, to consider the issue of section 702’s renewal.
“Congress cannot reform FISA alone,” Turner said, telling the panelists 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 said addressing the panel of intelligence leaders.
The first step to earning back public trust, Turner said, “is an ability to admit that there is in fact a problem.”
LaHood went a step further, expressing the belief that efforts to reauthorize section 702 as it’s currently formulated is a “non-starter.”
“Unfortunately, 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,” LaHood said, citing concerns from Republicans and Democrats alike that FISA is too broad a tool to continue in its current form.
‘No Violations Are Defensible’: FBI Director Wray
During testimony on the alleged abuses of the FISA, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the panel that “no violations [of the FISA or section 702] are defensible.”
Wray’s statement was prompted by a question from LaHood, who asked the FBI chief if he would “acknowledge that the FBI has committed abuses and violations in its use of FISA.”
“Is that defensible?” LaHood added.
“First off, no violations are defensible,” Wray said.
Wray then admitted tha “There have been compliance incidents that have to be addressed.”
“We have taken all sorts of steps [to increase FISA compliance] that I could walk the committee through here to address that issue,” Wray said, adding, “What’s important to note about that is that all of the reports to date on that have been shared with the public and I think with the Congress.”
Wray also claimed that the rampant violations revealed by the 2021 report had been addressed, citing a major decrease in illegal FISA queries in 2022.
“So it’s a dramatic increase in the judiciousness with which our people are running their queries,” Wray said. “And we are absolutely committed to making sure that we show you [the members of the committee], the rest of the members of Congress, and the American people that were worthy of these incredibly valuable authorities.”
Still, Wray admitted, “We clearly have a lot of work to do with this committee.”