Trump To Step-up Domestic-Surveillance Programs! (#GotBitcoin?)
Senior White House officials are discussing an overhaul of the government’s surveillance program for people in the U.S. suspected of posing a national-security risk, spurred in part by President Trump’s grievances about an investigation of a 2016 campaign adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump To Step-up Domestic-Surveillance Programs! (#GotBitcoin?)
The effort seeks to take advantage of the looming expiration of some spying powers next month, including portions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a Watergate-era law that Mr. Trump believes was improperly used to target his campaign, these people said.
Overhauling FISA has become a rallying cry for conservatives and allies of the president in the aftermath of a watchdog report detailing several errors made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its applications for surveillance of Mr. Trump’s campaign adviser, Carter Page. Some Republicans have called for upending FISA, prompting pushback from some in the administration, including Attorney General William Barr.
The plan, which is being spearheaded by officials within the White House Domestic Policy Council, is in the early stages and could face resistance from other parts of the Trump administration, including the National Security Council, which has generally advocated maintaining or expanding surveillance powers during Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Some administration officials have privately raised concerns that the new FISA effort could go too far, but officials working on the plan countered that they don’t intend to undermine the government’s core surveillance powers.
FISA governs how the FBI, the National Security Agency and other agencies conduct national security-related spying on domestic targets. The administration has said it supports a permanent renewal of the parts of the law due to lapse, including a currently halted NSA program that collects U.S. call data, which a growing number of Republicans and Democrats want to allow to expire.
The lapsing provisions, which were first adopted under the post-9/11 Patriot Act and last amended in 2015, aren’t the same as the ones the White House officials are eager to revise. But because Congress rarely considers changes to intelligence law, those officials want to capitalize on the deadline.
The administration officials are discussing a range of possible revisions and are planning deeper discussions with lawmakers, but they said the overall goal was to increase transparency.
One proposal under discussion would establish a process by which subjects of national-security surveillance would be later notified they had been surveilled. Such a change, long pushed by some privacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, would align the law more closely with disclosure requirements for criminal wiretaps, which typically conclude with targets being notified of the surveillance against them, the people said.
Presidents in both parties have historically been reluctant to advocate for any retrenchment of surveillance authorities, even in times of public support for more privacy safeguards, due to concerns that blame could be directed at them in the event of a terrorist attack, former officials have said.
Mr. Trump hasn’t expressed any public opinion on the coming expiration of the spying powers, but he has been a harsh critic of the government’s surveillance powers and has privately encouraged his advisers to develop a policy response to the surveillance of Mr. Page, the people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Trump feels personally victimized by the FISA process and the intelligence agencies that he oversees and some of the White House officials see a political opening for an overhaul.
“We were abused by the FISA process; there’s no question about it,” Mr. Trump told reporters this month. “We were seriously abused by FISA.”
Many of the claims by Mr. Trump about Obama-era surveillance against him and his campaign lack merit and in some cases have been disputed by his own Justice Department, but he has said the watchdog report vindicates his criticism of the FBI.
In late 2016, the FBI began to conduct surveillance on Mr. Page, who had previously drawn the interest of counterintelligence investigators for his contact with a suspected Russian spy in New York. The surveillance was approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret judicial panel that approves such warrants.
The Justice Department’s inspector general concluded in a report released in December that the FBI had made significant errors in how it sought and obtained the surveillance, and the Department now believes it should have discontinued the surveillance far earlier than it did.
Among the “serious performance failures” documented in the report was the FBI’s withholding to the FISA court of information that undercut claims made by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, in an unverified dossier the bureau partially relied on to obtain approval for surveillance against Mr. Page.
The applications to surveil Mr. Page additionally neglected to describe his previous relationship as an “operational contact” with the Central Intelligence Agency, and detailed an episode where an FBI attorney allegedly altered an email related to renewing the surveillance to add that Mr. Page was “not a source” for the government.
As a result, the president is “highly skeptical about signing any reauthorization that doesn’t carry significant FISA reforms,” a White House official said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) a Trump ally who said he had participated in meetings with White House officials on the subject, said in an interview, “A reauthorization of FISA without reform would be vetoed by the president. I’m certain of it.”
As the March deadline approaches, a FISA overhaul could attract the support of a bipartisan congressional coalition of national-security hawks and privacy advocates.
Since the emergence of the Justice Department’s findings on Mr. Page’s surveillance, several Republicans who say they typically favor robust national security powers have said they were open to revisions to the FISA law.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), an ally of Mr. Trump’s, has called FISA reform one of his top priorities.
Democrats in the House have also indicated an interest in pursuing broader changes to the FISA law. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to markup a bill on Wednesday addressing the expiring surveillance provisions.
Administration officials have discussed extending the law temporarily, perhaps by as little as 60 days, while they negotiate an overhaul package with lawmakers. The details of the revisions are still being fleshed out, administration officials said. Joe Grogan, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, is leading the internal discussions, the officials said.
The White House declined to comment.
Some senior administration officials, including Mr. Barr, are hesitant to make major changes to existing intelligence law, people familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Barr has said the current FISA process needs more oversight from the Justice Department, in light of the inspector general report, but has defended the law itself as essential for national security.
“We are committed to preserving FISA and we think all Americans should be committed to preserving FISA,” Mr. Barr told reporters in December. “It is essential to protect the security of the United States.”
Mr. Barr has called FISA a “critical tool” and vowed to preserve it after some Republicans suggested the future of the law was in jeopardy following the inspector general’s report.
A Justice Department spokesman said Mr. Barr supports “targeted reforms,” but declined to elaborate.
Mr. Barr is scheduled to discuss the reauthorization of key intelligence provisions with Senate Republicans on Tuesday during their weekly member lunch, according to people familiar with the matter.
William Barr Urges Lawmakers Not To Weaken U.S. Spying Powers
Attorney general says he is considering ordering a range of requirements to address report faulting FBI probe of Carter Page.
Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday urged lawmakers to reauthorize the government’s expiring surveillance powers and promised he would institute new quality-control mechanisms after a recent inspector general report found serious flaws in the FBI’s efforts to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser.
Mr. Barr spoke about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during a weekly lunch with Republican senators, some of whom have called for upending the law that President Trump believes was improperly used to target his campaign.
A senior Justice Department official said Mr. Barr told senators he is considering ordering a range of requirements to address what he views as “egregious abuses” by the FBI in its applications to surveil campaign adviser Carter Page in its investigation of possible ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
But Mr. Barr, like many other national security and intelligence officials, is opposed to sweeping changes to existing FISA law, which he has called crucial to national security.
The spying powers lapsing next month are largely not the same as those at issue in the watchdog report released in December, but lawmakers and some White House aides supportive of a FISA overhaul see the deadline as an opportunity to compel Congress to enact broader changes to surveillance law.
The hourlong lunch took place after a turbulent two weeks for the Justice Department, during which Mr. Barr suggested to confidants that he had considered resigning over President Trump’s refusal to heed his requests to stop tweeting about pending criminal cases, particularly the sentencing of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.
By Tuesday, the matter appeared to have died down. Mr. Trump didn’t stop tweeting—he commented on Tuesday about Mr. Stone’s case—but Mr. Barr’s departure didn’t seem imminent.
To Mr. Barr’s critics, his talk about resigning—coming after a televised rebuke of Mr. Trump in which he said the tweets were making it “impossible” for him to do his job—seemed aimed at protecting his reputation after the political furor inside and outside the Justice Department over the length of Mr. Stone’s sentence.
The controversy arose after Mr. Barr overruled a sentencing recommendation from the prosecutors on the case, and recommended that Mr. Stone face lighter punishment. The prosecutors withdrew from the case as a result, with one quitting the department entirely.
“We all have a lot of confidence in him, we think he’s doing a great job,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said of Mr. Barr.
The FISA discussion offered an opportunity for Mr. Barr to shift the focus onto other pressing issues facing the Justice Department. Mr. Barr told senators his preferred approach, in which he would order changes while lawmakers debate broader changes for future legislation, has the support of the FBI director and others, the Justice Department official said.
The discussion also came as Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are expected to pass legislation this week that would install several privacy-minded changes to the expiring surveillance powers, including a shutdown of a currently halted National Security Agency program that collects U.S. call data.
Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.), the top Republican on the committee and a Trump ally, faulted the bill for not addressing the issues raised in the watchdog report. A spokesman for House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.), who is advancing the House bill, disputed Mr. Collins’s characterization, saying his measure would end the call-records program and make fundamental changes to the operation of the FISA court.
Overhauling the intelligence law has become a priority for conservatives and allies of the president. The Justice Department official said Mr. Barr supports “meaningful and targeted safeguards” to the electronic surveillance provisions of the law. But he has pushed back on proposals that would undercut the program, including some being discussed within the White House.
Mr. Barr acknowledged the differing opinions during the lunch, the Justice Department official said.
Any regulations Mr. Barr orders at the Justice Department wouldn’t preclude Congress and the White House from making their own changes.
“What he’s doing is going to happen fairly quickly,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said, adding that the Senate might write some changes into law.
Mr. Graham said that any changes would cover a narrow set of cases involving the handling of foreign-intelligence surveillance gathered on Americans who work with foreign powers but aren’t involved in a crime.
FISA governs how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the NSA and other agencies conduct national security-related spying on domestic targets. The administration has previously said it supports a permanent renewal of the parts of the law that are due to lapse, including the NSA program, which a growing number of Republicans and Democrats want to allow to expire.
Some Republican senators said that any regulatory changes to FISA the Justice Department undertakes would only be a part of overhauling the secretive warrant process.
“I still think it’s very important that FISA reforms come from Congress, because any reforms that come from the White House could easily be reversed by the next president,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).
Senior White House officials have for months been quietly discussing an overhaul of FISA in hopes of making the law more transparent. The administration plans to coordinate with lawmakers of both parties, who are already crafting legislation to reauthorize key expiring intelligence laws and update FISA.
Trump To Meet With GOP Lawmakers Amid Fight Over Curtailing U.S. Spying Powers
Privacy hawks Rand Paul and Mike Lee to attend meeting, as well as Attorney General William Barr.
President Trump will meet Tuesday with a group of Republicans who are on different sides of a fight over whether to curtail the government’s spying powers when Congress enacts must-pass legislation to extend some expiring surveillance authorities.
The meeting is set to include, among others, Sens. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah), who are privacy hawks, and Attorney General William Barr, who opposes sweeping changes to the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which he has called crucial to national security. The goal of the meeting is to hash out the differences among Republicans and try to agree on a way forward before key powers expire on March 15.
“There are lots of strong views about what should happen, so it’s time that everyone start talking among themselves to see if there’s any chance of unity among Republicans prior to March 15th,” a White House official said.
Those differing views came into focus last week when Mr. Barr urged Senate Republicans at a closed-door lunch to renew expiring surveillance powers, saying he would use his own authority as attorney general to institute quality-control measures.
While many Senate Republicans have supported a straightforward extension, others see any legislation to preserve the government’s monitoring powers as an opportunity to overhaul the system.
“The president has said that his position is we should not reauthorize the Patriot Act without reforms,” said Mr. Paul, who said he would know more about how far Mr. Trump intended to push his position after the Tuesday meeting.
Mr. Trump has signaled his support for a measure that would prohibit the U.S. government from turning to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to get wiretaps on Americans, and Mr. Paul said last week he is crafting an amendment to a coming intelligence bill that would overhaul the secretive court.
Privacy hawks within the Republican Party have an opportunity because many Democrats also support restricting surveillance powers. The unusual coalition that has emerged is big enough that last week House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) was forced to cancel a planned committee vote to advance surveillance legislation when Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) threatened to muster enough votes to dramatically reshape the measure in ways favored by privacy hawks.