G.O.P. Threatens Spy Agencies’ Premier Surveillance Tool


An intensive drive by right-wing Republicans in Congress to vilify the F.B.I. with charges of political bias has imperiled a program allowing spy agencies to conduct warrantless surveillance on foreign targets, sapping support for a premier intelligence tool and amplifying demands for stricter limits.

The once-secret program — created after the 9/11 attacks and described by intelligence officials as crucial to stopping overseas hackers, spy services and terrorists — has long faced resistance by Democrats concerned that it could trample on Americans’ civil liberties. But the law authorizing it is set to expire in December, and opposition among Republicans, who have historically championed it, has grown as the G.O.P. has stepped up its attacks on the F.B.I., taking a page from former President Donald J. Trump and his supporters.

“There’s no way we’re going to be for reauthorizing that in its current form — no possible way,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, a key ally of Mr. Trump’s who is leading a special House investigation to into the “weaponization” of government against conservatives. “We’re concerned about surveillance, period.”

At issue is a program allows the government to collect — on domestic soil and without a warrant — the communications of targeted foreigners abroad, including when those people are interacting with Americans. Leaders of both parties have warned the Biden administration that Congress will not renew the law that legalized it, known as Section 702, without changes to prevent federal agents from freely searching the email, phone and other electronic records of Americans in touch with surveilled foreigners.

Since the program was last extended in 2018, the G.O.P.’s approach to law enforcement and data collection has undergone a dramatic transformation. Disdain for the agencies that benefit from the warrantless surveillance program has moved into the party mainstream, particularly in the House, where Republicans assert that the F.B.I.’s investigations of Mr. Trump were biased and complain of a broader plot by the government to persecute conservatives — including some of those charged for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — for their political beliefs. They argue that federal law enforcement agencies cannot be trusted with Americans’ records, and should be prevented from accessing them.

“You couldn’t waterboard me into voting to reauthorize 702,” said Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, who backed the program in 2018. “These 702 authorities were abused against people in Washington on January 6 and they were abused against people who were affiliated with the B.L.M. movement, and I’m equally aggrieved by both of those things.”

Congress created Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008, and has renewed the program twice since, largely thanks to the overwhelming support of Republican lawmakers. But significant turnover on Capitol Hill has brought a new generation of Republicans less protective of Washington’s post-9/11 counterterrorism powers, and about half of House Republicans have never cast a vote on it.

“This will be a first impression for many of them,” said Representative Darin LaHood, Republican of Illinois, a supporter of the program who is part of the Intelligence Committee’s six-member working group trying to determine how Congress can restrict the program without hamstringing it. “The thought that 702 and FISA just focused on terrorism — I think that narrative has to be changed. We need to focus on China, we need to focus on Russia, we need to focus on Iran and North Korea.”

The Biden administration has been making a similar case to lawmakers, appealing to them to renew the Section 702 program, which National Security Adviser Jake Sherman has said was “crucial” to heading off national security threats from China, Russia, cyberattacks and terrorist groups.

But far-right lawmakers have embarked on a louder and more politically loaded effort to fight the measure. They have seized on official determinations that federal agents botched a wiretap on a Trump campaign adviser and more recent disclosures that F.B.I. analysts improperly used Section 702 to search for information about hundreds of Americans who came under scrutiny in connection with the Jan. 6 attack and the Black Lives Matter protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

Justice Department and F.B.I. officials have attempted to defend themselves from lawmakers’ outrage over those revelations, pointing to steps they have taken to restrain the opportunities agents are permitted to examine the communications of Americans collected under Section 702. They credit those changes with reducing the number of such queries from about 3 million in 2021 to about 120,000 last year.

But their opening salvos have not swayed skeptical Democrats whose support the Biden administration is expected to need for an extension of the spying program.

In recent years, Capitol Hill has welcomed several new Democrats with backgrounds in national security who favor extending the program. But convincing others is a challenge, as most members of the party — including Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the minority leader — have voted against extensions. Even President Biden voted against the law to legalize the program in 2008, when he was a senator.

Democratic supporters have been adamant that any reauthorization will have to include significant limitations on how and when agents may comb their databases for information on Americans, in the hopes that those safeguards will allay lawmakers’ longstanding concerns about the potential for abuses.

“We’ve been very clear with the administration that there is not going to be a clean reauthorization — there’s no path to that,” said Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado, who is also part of the Intelligence Committee’s Section 702 working group.

He suggested that the restrictions would include limits on when agents could query their databases for information about Americans, and requirements that warrants be obtained in some circumstances.

Representative Chris Stewart, Republican of Utah, who is a member of the Intelligence Committee’s working group and the weaponization panel, said some members of his party might be persuaded to reauthorize the program with “deep reforms.”

“But there’ll still be a number who are just never going to authorize this,” Mr. Stewart added. “Being on the weaponization committee, I’ve seen insights into some of their thinking — and there are a number of them who just won’t ever come on board.”

The administration has signaled it is open to discussing other changes in theory. But officials from the F.B.I. and Justice Department pushed back this month on specific proposals during their first public appearance on Capitol Hill to discuss the matter, rankling lawmakers.

“I don’t have any doubt about the foreign intelligence value of this, but the U.S. person aspect of this is really concerning to the Congress,” Senator Jon Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia, told the officials during a hearing of the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think you’ve effectively made the case that there shouldn’t be a warrant requirement.”

The committee chairman, Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, did not find the changes to be sufficient. “If the reforms that you’ve mentioned in 2021 and 2022 are the only reforms that you’re bringing to this committee as we discuss the future of Section 702, I’ve got to see more,” he told agency officials.


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