Key U.S. lawmakers are warning the country’s top intelligence officials that they could soon find themselves without a much-talked-about surveillance authority unless their agencies are able to prove they can be trusted.
Republican Representative Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced Thursday the creation of a bipartisan working group to examine the way the government is doing surveillance under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
FISA Section 702 allows agencies such as the FBI and the National Security Agency to gather electronic data of non-Americans without first obtaining a warrant. But its use has stirred controversy because of repeated incidents in which officials have collected information on U.S. citizens.
“Section 702 is essential,” Turner said. “It has provided successes and has provided those successes against our adversaries.
“However, there have been and there continue to be many abuses of FISA,” he added. “It must be reformed.”
Republican Representative Darin LaHood, tapped to lead the new working group, was equally blunt.
"A clean legislative reauthorization of 702 is a nonstarter," he told Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, as well as the heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA and Defense Intelligence Agency.
“Unfortunately, there are far too many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that question whether the executive branch can be trusted with this powerful tool,” LaHood said, accusing the FBI of searching for his name “multiple times” in foreign data collected under the FISA authority.
FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged mistakes had been made but sought to assure the lawmakers that the necessary changes have been made.
"There have been compliance incidences that have to be addressed, and we have taken all sorts of steps,” Wray told LaHood, adding, "No violations are defensible, in my view.”
Wray said the number of times the FBI searched for U.S. citizens or their information under Section 702 had dropped 93%, from 2021 to 2022, and by 85% over the past two years.
“It's a dramatic increase in the judiciousness with which our people are running their queries,” he said. “And 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.”
Without action from Congress, the FISA Section 702 authorities will expire at the end of the year.
Top U.S. intelligence officials have said FISA Section 702 warrantless surveillance authorities were critical to the U.S. strike that killed al-Qaida terror leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and, more recently, to efforts to take down networks running fentanyl, an opioid blamed for tens of thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S.
Haines also defended the program, calling it “the most effective way for us to gather intelligence on non-U.S. persons outside of the United States," and noting it was critical in understanding China’s efforts to send spies into the U.S., as well as in countering Beijing’s efforts in cyberspace.
'That's a loaded gun'
China came up repeatedly during Thursday’s Worldwide Threat Assessment hearing in the House, with some lawmakers restating concerns about how Beijing could leverage Chinese-owned ByteDance and its popular social media app, TikTok, against Americans.
"The control of the recommendation algorithm could be used to conduct influence operations,” Wray said, cautioning, "That's not something that would be easily detected."
General Paul Nakasone, National Security Agency chief, also raised concerns.
“One-third of Americans get their news on TikTok every single day. One-sixth of American youth say they're constantly on TikTok,” he said. “That's a loaded gun.”
Xi studying Putin
U.S. intelligence officials also told lawmakers that China is learning from Russia’s stalled invasion of Ukraine as it pushes for reunification with Taiwan.
“Nobody has watched more intently [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's experience in Ukraine than [Chinese President] Xi Jinping," said CIA Director William Burns. “And I think he's been sobered to some extent, at least it's our analysis, by the extent to which the West was able to maintain solidarity and absorb some short-term economic costs in the interests of imposing even greater long-term economic costs on Russia.
“That’s something President Xi has to weigh as he comes out of zero-COVID, tries to restore Chinese economic growth, tries to engage with the rest of the global economy.”
As for whether Xi will resort to military force to take Taiwan, U.S. intelligence officials said they still believe that is not his first choice.
“It is not our assessment that China wants to go to war," Haines said. “They nevertheless are utterly committed to unification."
"We don't see evidence today that Xi has made a decision to invade Taiwan,” Burns added, though he cautioned, “I would never underestimate the ambition of the current Chinese leadership in that regard.”