Attorney General Merrick Garland defended the FBI’s usage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), saying that the surveillance apparatus is critical to “fight the Chinese.”
Garland made the comments during a March 29 appearance before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. He came to Capitol Hill to discuss the Department of Justice (DOJ) side of President Joe Biden’s proposed budget.
During the hearing, Garland defended the FBI’s use of FISA Section 702, a post-9/11 section of U.S. Code that is controversial for its wide-ranging application in surveilling American citizens. A court-ordered report found that the FBI had used that controversial section of U.S. law to illegally spy on over 3.3 million Americans without a warrant, including an unnamed sitting member of Congress.
Garland was pressed on the issue by Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), who cited a “trust issue” between Garland’s DOJ and the American people.
House Republicans are currently mounting broad investigations into the Weaponization of the Federal Government; they allege that Biden and federal law enforcement have “weaponized” the government for partisan ends. By corollary, a number of polls have shown that Republican voters have increasingly little trust in the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies.
During his questioning of Garland, Garcia said, “I don’t trust [DOJ] to use FISA the way it was intended.
“Patriots are not compelled to trust their government.”
“I agree,” Garland replied. “That’s why I gave up the bench to come to the Justice Department, to instill trust in the Justice Department.”
Following the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Garland was nominated to fill the vacancy by President Barack Obama. However, Garland’s nomination was not taken up by the Senate. The seat left vacant by Scalia was later filled by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated by President Donald Trump.
But Garland said that FISA Section 702, despite abuses, provides “an extraordinarily large proportion of the intel we get.”
“It’s a tool we need to fight the Chinese particularly,” he said.
Garland contended that as soon as he was made aware of the compliance issues with Section 702, he immediately sought to ensure the violations didn’t recur moving forward. FBI Director Christopher Wray told a House panel earlier that there were far fewer FISA compliance issues after 2021.
“The result has been an almost 90 percent decrease in queries of Americans,” he said.
In sum, Garland said that he “desperately wants FISA to continue—not for myself” but for U.S. national security.
During a March 9 hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) announced the formation of a working group to explore “egregious” FISA violations.
“Congress cannot reform FISA alone,” Turner said, telling the panelists that he hoped they would coordinate with the working group to renew FISA in a revised form “that safeguard[s] and guarantee[s] the rights of all U.S. citizens.”
The FISA, which initially passed Congress in 1978 as a safeguard for Americans’ civil liberties, grants intelligence agencies limited authority to gather foreign intelligence information by collecting suspected foreign actors’ cell phone metadata, communications, and other information considered pertinent to national security.
The modern-day FISA, which was substantially expanded in 2008, contains a controversial 9/11-era provision—section 702—granting intelligence agencies broad authority to spy on both foreign and domestic actors. Many Republicans have accused the intelligence community of using these powers to go after political opponents, violating Americans’ core legal rights.
The renewal of section 702 of the FISA, which is currently set to expire on Dec. 31, 2023, has been a key priority for intelligence officials. At the same time, a litany of Republicans have echoed Garcia’s trust concerns, leaving the final fate of Section 702 uncertain.