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Senators Question FBI On Warrantless Surveillance

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The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday on renewing a key intelligence tool. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is under the microscope, and recent FBI reforms on warrantless data collection aren’t cutting it with the Senate.

What’s on the table? Section 702 lets US agencies scoop up electronic chatter of foreigners abroad sans warrant, but it sometimes catches Americans’ data in the net. They say it’s crucial for national security, and the clock’s ticking on its expiration at year-end.

Big quote: Committee Chairman, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), laid it on the line: “I will only support reauthorization of Section 702 if there are significant — significant — reforms. And that means, first and foremost, addressing the warrantless surveillance of Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) has a section worth watching in full. He wanted to know why, if warrantless surveillance was really so rare, why not just get a warrant?

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) blasted “the FBI’s shocking disregard for American’s constitutional rights” in relation to FISA and described FISA 702 searches as “an affront to the Constitution.”

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) blasted FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate for the FBI’s repeated abuse of authority, running “278,000 unwarranted, probably illegal queries on Americans.” Abbate claims that “likely all” of these queries were “unintentional.”

Bipartisan worries: It’s not just the Dems. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Committee’s GOP ‘heavyweight,’ jumped on board, pressing the FBI to “prove to this committee that when you query about American citizens in that system that you’re not just being lazy, getting around the law, and that these abuses need to stop.”

The inside look: The FBI’s Deputy Director Paul Abbate and Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen were in the hot seats. They walked through their playbook of reforms — attorney eyeballs on searches and an “opt-in” feature for 702 searches. Olsen alleged that US person queries plummeted by 90% from 2021 to 2022.

Not enough: Abbate threw in two more goodies: a “three-strike” rule and a peek at how bosses are checking on compliance. But the Senate didn’t bite.

The skeptics speak: Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) called foul, railing that the FBI has “shown us repeatedly for more than a decade that they cannot be trusted” and blasted its “shocking disregard for Americans’ privacy rights and civil liberties.”

Pushback: Olsen hit back, arguing a warrant mandate “is not workable and not legally required,” and would leave national security hanging. But Olsen and Abbate did nod to locking recent reforms into law.

Last word: Durbin brought down the hammer, underlining that the reform menu doesn’t make the cut for renewing Section 702, and prodded the FBI to come back with more.

The big picture: With Dems and the GOP finding shared angst over civil liberties, the Biden team has to steer through choppy currents to lock down the re-up on this disaster of a surveillance program.

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