Republicans Battle To Rein In FISA Court: ‘We can’t settle for clean reauthorization’

The push for FISA reform is intensifying on Capitol Hill this week as Republicans and Democrats battled behind closed doors Thursday to find solutions that would ensure federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies and the secret court never again abuse the surveillance apparatus that was center of the FBI’s malfeasance to spy on the Trump campaign in 2016.

That reform battle has top Republican lawmakers calling for an amicus representative – a citizen advocate- representing Americans inside the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to oversee the applications being submitted by the FBI to spy on an American citizen. At the present time, there is no one to advocate on behalf of an American being targeted by the FBI and it is solely at the discretion of the judges of the secret court to ask for a review if they decide it’s warranted, lawmakers told

“We want to put in place a citizen advocate at the court that’s what this amicus process is, having an advocate representing the interest of an American citizen that is the target of a FISA warrant,” Rep. Jim Jordan, ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, told this reporter. “Further there needs to be real penalties for violations. We also want transcripts of all the proceedings and those transcripts would get declassified at some point in time to be reviewed. Most importantly, we want the citizen advocate to be there all the time. We’re looking at a pool of people that would be eligible to fill that role. Currently the court has eight people they can call on if need be to review but we want a bigger pool of people and that isn’t there at this present time.”

“We can’t settle for a clean reauthorization, no way,” added Jordan.

Several congressional sources said Thursday that numerous meetings between senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been taking place Thursday behind closed doors in an effort to come to a resolution to FISA reform.

Any reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would need to include the reforms stressed by Jordan, if the three provisions of the U.S.A. Freedom Act are going to be reauthorized on March 15. The three provisions up for reauthorization are the metadata collection under section 215, roving wiretaps and the lone wolf. Those provisions, however, are not the same provisions that were abused by FBI officials in the warrant obtained to spy on short term Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. The sections that were responsible for the abuses in the Page FISA warrant come under Title I, and do not expire. For this reason, House Republicans are fighting to use the renewals as leverage to ensure that Title I is changed.

Many civil libertarians and lawmakers have called for the FISA Court to either be dismantled or completely reformed. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael  Horowitz revealed in his 435 page report in December, that the bureau had 17 gross violations in its warrant and three subsequent renewals to spy on Page. Those violations included withholding exculpatory information, altering documents and basically lying to the court to spy.

Ranking chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes, R-CA, told Thursday that major reforms must happen before any reauthorization happens.

“The FBI abused FISA to spy on a political campaign, and the FISA judges utterly failed to stop it even thought the House Intelligence Committee told them it was happening,” said Nunes. “We need major reforms to FISA that do not rely on the FBI acting in good faith on the FISA judges’ ability to find and stop malfeasance.”

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, said this week that “Democrats are completely ignoring the serious abuse committed against President Trump’s campaign in 2016, regardless of the fact that Inspector General Horowitz’s report confirmed that our intelligence community committed an unforgivable offense when the FBI abused its power to unlawfully spy on Carter Page. There must be accountability for those who committed these offenses.”

President Donald Trump is said to be backing a full reform package that includes not just reform to the FISA but to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as well, say lawmakers. Trump’s decision to back reforms to the surveillance court in the intelligence bill puts may put him at odds with some of the Senate leadership. It may also put him up against Attorney General William Barr, who said this week to Republican senators in a closed-door meeting that Trump would back a clean extension.

Furthermore, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Thursday that Trump will back his proposal for FISA reform. Those reforms will include reforms to the surveillance court as part of a bill, according to a report from The Hill.  

“The [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] FISA reforms that I think are very necessary is that FISA warrants shouldn’t be issued on Americans and any information gathered by the FISA court shouldn’t used against Americans. It’s for foreign intelligence. This is a big reform. … I think it will get bipartisan support. I’ve talked to the president about it,” Paul said.

The two major provisions that both the majority of Republicans and Democrats, as well as the intelligence community, want reauthorized are the roving wiretaps and the lone wolf reforms. The ‘roving wiretap’ provision allows spy agencies to get a warrant from the FISA court without identifying the target, and further it allows federal law enforcement the ability to continue to monitor a suspect that may be using multiple phones or switching phones to evade law enforcement.

The second provision is the “lone wolf” provision. This provision allows the government to get a warrant to monitor a suspect that may not be an  agent of a foreign power or linked to terrorism. It is also a provision the intelligence community and federal law enforcement believe is a necessary tool to monitor suspects that may not belong to any terrorist organization but none-the-less could be a potential national security threat.

However, the most controversial is section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act, which is the collection of metadata – that is the phone records, time spent on call, and other broad information made between callers. A number of congressional sources told this provision may not be reauthorized.