Russia’s attack on Ukraine – and the resulting international tension – is sure to enable a host of sweeping new surveillance programs for U.S. intelligence agencies. Given the threats from Russia – as well as from the People’s Republic of China and Iran – it is clear such surveillance is needed. But as we have seen time and again, most notably in the aftermath of 9/11, that when the Intelligence Community gets a grant of wide, new authorities against foreign actors, somehow it is the constitutional rights of Americans that wind up getting trampled.
It is refreshing, then, that in this fevered environment some Members of Congress continue to press the IC for vigilance against domestic abuses.
In a recent House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on “worldwide threats,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) made an impassioned statement before Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and CIA Director Nicholas Burns. He said that we “should never turn the immense power of the CIA or the immense power of the NSA on American persons.”
Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill) reminded Director Wray about a declassified rebuke by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge ruling that the FBI had abused Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Dozens of queries were “conducted in support of predicated criminal investigations … This includes purely domestic activities like healthcare fraud, bribery and public corruption that were outside the norms of Section 702.”
To his credit, this time Director Wray did not repeat his unfortunate response in light of the FBI Inspector General’s findings in the Carter Page affair. He did not say, “thanks for the constructive criticism.” He focused on subsequent changes to systems, training, policies, audits, and other safeguards, promising to continue to do better.
Statements like these are reassuring – up to a point. Recent revelations that both the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security have been conducting bulk surveillance of Americans’ financial data show the potential for continuing abuses.
Leaders like Reps. Stewart and LaHood remind us that we cannot simply trust the IC to strike the right balance between protecting the American people and violating their rights. Now, more than ever, we need Congressional oversight of the IC.