Last month, a declassified FBI report revealed that the bureau had used Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to conduct multiple unlawful searches of a sitting Congress member’s personal communications. Wired was the first to report the abuse, but for weeks, no one knew exactly which lawmaker was targeted by the FBI. That changed this week when Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) revealed during an annual House Intelligence Committee hearing on world threats that the FBI’s abuse of 702 was “in fact” aimed at him.
“This careless abuse by the FBI is unfortunate,” LaHood said at the hearing, suggesting that the searches of his name not only “degrades trust in FISA” but was a “threat to separation of powers” in the United States. Calling the FBI’s past abuses of Section 702 “egregious,” the congressman—who is leading the House Intelligence Committee’s working group pushing to reauthorize Section 702 amid a steeply divided Congress—said that “ironically,” being targeted by the FBI gives him a “unique perspective” on “what’s wrong with the FBI.”
LaHood has said that having his own Fourth Amendment rights violated in ways others consider “frightening” positions him well to oversee the working group charged with implementing bipartisan reforms and safeguards that would prevent any such abuses in the future.
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said that LaHood “personifies the fears and mistrust many in America have about the FBI’s leadership,” noting that ”too many Americans are worried it could be them” next.
FBI director Christopher Wray said that he “completely” understood LaHood’s concerns, while emphasizing that the FBI has already implemented reforms and safeguards to prevent similar abuses in the future. An FBI spokesperson told Ars that “extensive changes” to address 702 compliance issues include “a whole new Office of Internal Audit currently focused on FISA compliance” and new policies requiring “enhanced pre-approval requirements before certain ‘sensitive’ US person queries can be run.” The spokesperson provided an example, saying that for any sensitive queries involving elected officials, the FBI’s deputy director must sign off.
Wray said at the hearing that queries of the Section 702 database on US persons have dropped by 93 percent since last year. He also confirmed that the FBI launched “all sorts of mandatory enhanced training” initiatives on 702 compliance.
Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel for Demand Progress, told Ars that LaHood’s revelation this week is “the biggest news on the surveillance front” for US citizens. Earlier this year, Vitka wrote that abuses like LaHood experienced are “bone-chilling,” saying that there’s a documented “pattern of continuous and widespread misuses of Section 702” and “it is absolutely imperative” that Congress institute reforms this year, “before it’s too late.”
Earlier this year, Demand Progress joined 13 organizations proposing reforms to Section 702, urging Congress to enact changes like requiring a warrant for intelligence community searches on Americans, bolstering the judicial review process for Section 702 queries, and enacting limits to prevent searches on ordinary private citizens.
LaHood acknowledged at the hearing that—unlike Congress members who want to see Section 702 repealed rather than reauthorized by the end of this year—he thinks Section 702 is “invaluable” as an effective way to gather intelligence on non-US citizens. However, “overly broad” searches like the ones targeting him are “wholly inappropriate.”
“The bottom line is 702 deserves to be reauthorized because it’s an invaluable tool to be used to counter the threats of our adversaries, but the FISA working group must pursue reforms and safeguards through this reauthorization process,” LaHood said.