Barr orders more changes in FBI surveillance under FISA

Pete Williams
·2 min read

Attorney General William Barr ordered another round of changes Tuesday that he said are needed to avoid abuses of the law allowing the FBI to conduct secret surveillance in terrorism and foreign counterintelligence cases.

The new policies add to restrictions imposed earlier by Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray after the Justice Department inspector general concluded last year that the FBI misused the process for getting authority under FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to eavesdrop on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The Page FISA has been a rallying point for conservative opponents of the FBI's investigation of the Trump campaign.

Before conducting physical searches or wiretaps of a federal election official, members of the official's staff, candidates for federal office, or their staff or advisers, the FBI must now consider giving them a "defensive briefing," to tell them that they could be the target of foreign influence. Such a step, Barr said, would address concerns that people in the U.S. "may become unwitting participants in an effort by a foreign power to influence an election or the policy or conduct of the United States government."

Trump was given a generic defensive briefing by the FBI after he became the Republican nominee in 2016. But the FBI did not warn him that some members of his campaign were under investigation. Nor did agents confront him with their suspicions that he might have been improperly influenced by the Russian government.

Barr said FISA is a critical investigative tool, especially in fighting terrorism. But he said the public must have confidence that it does not violate the civil liberties of Americans.

"What happened to the Trump presidential campaign and his subsequent administration after the president was duly elected by the American people must never happen again," he said.

In a pair of memos, Barr directed the FBI to set up a new Office of Internal Auditing, to be led by an assistant FBI director drawn from the FBI's ranks, that will conduct routine reviews of how the FBI is using FISA and other techniques, such as national security letters. He also ordered more oversight whenever the FBI targets a U.S. person using FISA authorities.

An FBI official said Wray has already imposed many of the same kinds of internal safeguards as the Justice Department ordered Tuesday. The official also said that despite past problems, recent reviews by the inspector general have shown that the information in the FBI's FISA applications is overwhelmingly accurate.