GOP blasts DOJ ‘trust issue’ on FISA reauthorization as Garland points to China threat

Merrick Garland
Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies as the Senate Judiciary Committee examines the Department of Justice, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

GOP blasts DOJ ‘trust issue’ on FISA reauthorization as Garland points to China threat

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House Republicans blasted the Justice Department about the “trust issue” the DOJ faces as it pushes to reauthorize certain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act powers, while Attorney General Merrick Garland pointed to FISA’s use against the China threat.

Garland appeared before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday as part of his efforts to get the DOJ’s 2024 budget approved, but he was quickly pressed on the Biden administration’s efforts to get FISA’s Section 702 authorities renewed before they expire at the end of the year.

BIDEN ADMINISTRATION PUSHES FOR FISA RENEWAL AMID GOP SKEPTICISM

The reauthorization has already met opposition from some House and Senate Republicans in the wake of FISA abuses unearthed related to the FBI’s use of British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s discredited dossier to obtain flawed FISA surveillance against Trump campaign associate Carter Page during and after the 2016 election.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) told Garland on Thursday that “of all agencies right now, the Department of Justice that you head has got a brand name problem, has got a trust issue with the American people.” He pointed to the alleged “weaponization of the Justice Department” as well as “FISA issues that go back several years.” The congressman said he believes a majority of Congress does not yet support reauthorizing Section 702.

“I sit on the intel committee. I understand why we have FISA, what we use it for, what value it brings to our nation’s security, and I still don’t trust the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other federal agencies to use FISA in accordance with what it is intended for, and that is to keep Americans safe and not to be used against Americans who are not a threat,” Garcia said.

Garland replied, “I totally agree with you — we need the trust of the American people on this.” He then pointed to his memorandum to the FBI to fix problems with Section 702 compliance, adding he had asked the deputy attorney general to focus on this topic. Garland also highlighted the FBI’s new internal office of audit and said the bureau had changed the way its software works for querying Section 702 information, which he said had led to a nearly 90% reduction in FBI querying of Section 702 info on Americans.

He then added, “I desperately want FISA 702 to be continued,” pointing to challenges posed by China and other foreign adversaries as a reason to reauthorize the powers. Garland said Section 702 was key for gaining insights about China’s cyberattacks, its efforts to exfiltrate information, its campaigns to steal U.S. military science information and technology, and its illegal moves to control Chinese dissidents outside the country. He also pointed to the threats posed by Iran, Russia, and North Korea.

Originally conceived as mainly a counterterrorism tool in the wake of the deadly 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda, the Biden administration has sought to emphasize the role FISA plays in combating threats posed by China and other foreign foes as well.

House Intelligence Committee Republicans deciding whether to reauthorize Section 702 also warned the FBI about its “trust” deficit with Congress and the public at a hearing earlier in March, as the intelligence chiefs also pointed to the tool’s use against China during their testimony.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), the chairman of the committee, put together a working group led by Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL) to deal with the renewal process for Section 702. Turner, LaHood, and other Republicans argued earlier this month that the FBI and the intelligence community need to regain the trust of Congress and the public before the powers are reauthorized.

“I believe that a clean legislative reauthorization of 702 is a non-starter,” LaHood told FBI Director Christopher Wray. “You must first acknowledge that a problem exists before we can formulate meaningful reforms to build back trust and confidence in the FISA process.”

Wray said that “no violations are defensible.” He said the FBI misdeeds unearthed from its Trump-Russia Crossfire Hurricane investigation constituted “conduct that I consider totally unacceptable” and insisted he had implemented significant reforms since then.

“We are absolutely committed to making sure that we show you, the rest of the members of Congress, and the American people that we’re worthy of these incredibly valuable authorities,” Wray said.

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LaHood called Section 702 an “invaluable tool” but said the working group must pursue “reforms and safeguards” before reauthorization.

Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen also admitted in February that the Biden administration’s FISA renewal effort faced a “politics” problem as well as a “trust” problem related to FISA and Crossfire Hurricane and pointed to the China challenge as Garland had.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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