Attorney General Barr defends FISA as Republican scrutiny grows

Attorney General William Barr called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act a “critical tool” and vowed to preserve it Wednesday after suggestions from Republican lawmakers that the court that approves the powerful surveillance technique may have to be shut down absent sweeping reform.

FISA surveillance has come under criticism in the wake of a scathing report by the Justice Department inspector general, who revealed last week that the FBI’s applications to the FISA court to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide during the Russia investigation had been riddled with problems.

At a news conference in Detroit, Barr said that he thought a list of changes put forward by the FBI after the inspector general report were sufficient to address the problems the watchdog had exposed, but he added that he is open to additional fixes.

“We’re going to be sitting down evaluating them together,” Barr said of the proposed fixes to FISA, “and if there are some additional things to add we won’t hesitate to do that, but we are committed to preserving FISA, and we think all Americans should be committed to preserving FISA. It is essential to protect the security of the United States.”

Earlier Wednesday, Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who’s the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the FISA court was “in jeopardy” following the findings of the Justice Department inspector general.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, has also suggested that the FISA court may have to be shuttered if there isn’t “fundamental reform,” and on Tuesday, Graham said fixing the system would be a top priority in 2020 for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he leads.

The Washington-based Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, created by Congress in 1978, fields requests from the FBI for national security wiretaps to monitor the communications of suspected spies and terrorists. It has built a reputation as a rubber stamp among civil libertarians, who point to the lack of a process for defense attorneys to rebut evidence presented by law enforcement.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded the FBI had made 17 “significant errors or omissions” as it submitted applications to the court to monitor Carter Page, a onetime foreign policy adviser to the President’s 2016 political campaign, and on Tuesday, the judge who leads the court issued a rare public statement rebuking the law enforcement agency.

Among the omissions were pieces of evidence the FBI had collected as it furthered its investigation that undermined the working theory that Page may be a Russian asset. Horowitz also alleged that a low-level FBI attorney had doctored an email that was used in the FISA application process, and referred him for potential criminal prosecution.

Notably, Horowitz has said he found no evidence the FBI acted with bias as it opened the Russia investigation and used certain investigative techniques, but he said his office lacked the information needed to determine motivation for the errors made in the FISA applications.

Barr, a longtime skeptic of the Russia probe, has voiced concern that the FBI could have been motivated by “bad faith” as it investigated the President’s campaign, and said more investigation is necessary.

On Wednesday, Barr went out of his way to praise FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was standing next to him, calling him “my friend” and commending his efforts to protect “the country against foreign espionage” as well as his work to address issues surfaced in the inspector general report.

Wray has described the behavior unearthed in the report as unacceptable and unrepresentative of the FBI, and has outlined dozens of steps the agency will take to address Horowitz’s recommendations, including changes to make the processes for seeking FISA warrants “more stringent and less susceptible to mistake or inaccuracy.”

Barr on Wednesday announced the Justice Department was surging resources and federal law enforcement agents to cities hard hit by violent crime as part of a new initiative.

Under Operation Relentless Pursuit, seven cities, including Detroit, will build new task forces with increased federal manpower bolstered by a $71 million grant from the federal government.

The announcement included a show of force by the heads of the main federal law enforcement agencies — with Barr, Wray and the leaders of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the US Marshals Service standing side by side — which officials called an unprecedented occurrence outside of Washington.