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Russia Probe Highlights FBI Changes    12/13 06:36

   Israelis grappled Thursday with the confounding reality of unprecedented 
third national elections in less than a year, after Parliament was dissolved 
and the date for the next vote was set  further extending months of 
political paralysis that has gripped the country.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Revelations that the FBI committed serious errors in 
wiretapping a former Trump campaign aide have spurred bipartisan calls for 
change to the government's surveillance powers, including from some Republicans 
who in the past have voted to renew or expand those authorities.

   Anger over the errors cited in this week's Justice Department's inspector 
general's report of the Russia investigation has produced rare consensus from 
Democrats and Republicans who otherwise have had sharply different 
interpretations of the report's findings. The inspector general said the FBI 
was justified in investigating ties between the campaign and Russia, but 
criticized how the investigation was conducted.

   The report cited flaws and omissions in the government's warrant 
applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, documenting 
problems with a surveillance program that Democrats and civil libertarians have 
long maintained is opaque, intrusive and operates with minimal oversight. 
They've now been joined by Republicans who are irate that FBI officials did not 
supply key information to judges when they applied to eavesdrop on former Trump 
aide Carter Page.

   "I'm still trying to get my arms around the proposition that a whole bunch 
of conservative Republicans who've logged years blocking bipartisan FISA 
reforms are now somehow privacy hawks," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

   It's unclear what steps, if any, Congress could or will take to rein in the 
FBI's power under the surveillance law, and it remains to be seen whether 
outrage over the way a Trump ally was treated will extend to less overtly 
political investigations.

   Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who has recommended changes, said his 
office will conduct an audit of how the FBI applies for warrants from the 
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. FBI Director Christopher Wray said the 
bureau is making its own changes to ensure more accuracy and completeness in 
warrant applications. That includes tightening up layers of review and 
record-keeping.

   "I think we're entrusted with very significant power and authority. The FISA 
statute provides the FBI with absolutely indispensable tools that keep 325 
million Americans safe everyday," Wray told The Associated Press on Monday. 
"But with that significant power and authority comes a responsibility to be 
scrupulously accurate and careful, and I think that's what the FBI does best."

   The 1978 law authorizes the FBI to monitor the communications of people on 
U.S. soil they suspect of being agents of a foreign power, such as potential 
terrorists or spies. Unlike criminal wiretaps, the FBI need not have probable 
cause that a crime was committed to obtain a warrant. In Page's case, officials 
suspected that he was being targeted for Russian government recruitment though 
he was never accused by the FBI of wrongdoing. 

   Last year, the House Intelligence Committee gave the public an unprecedented 
peek into the secret process as it released dueling memos about the Page 
warrant, part of the partisan dispute over special counsel Robert Mueller's 
Russia investigation.

   Most of the surveillance applications do not result in criminal charges. 
When they do, there's no presumed right for a defendant to see the document 
themselves. Judges can order prosecutors to share FISA information with 
defendants if they deem it necessary for challenging a search's legality, but 
courts consistently have said disclosing the material could expose intelligence 
secrets.

   "The absolute lack of any potential for adversarial testing at any point in 
the process creates an environment where sloppiness and corner-cutting is so 
much more likely," said Elizabeth Goitein, who co-directs the Brennan Center 
for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program.

   Another criticism of the surveillance court has been that it's seen as a 
virtual rubber-stamp for government requests, with almost all applications 
approved. Justice Department documents show the government filed 1,081 
applications requesting electronic surveillance under FISA in 2018. One was 
withdrawn and only one other was rejected in full. 

   The requests to wiretap Page, originally made in the fall of 2016 and then 
renewed three times after that, included what the inspector general said were 
17 flaws and omissions.

   According to Horowitz, the FBI failed to update the court as it learned new 
information that could have undercut some of the original assertions it made 
about Page. Agents, for instance, did not disclose that questions had been 
raised about the reliability of a source whose reporting had been relied on in 
obtaining the warrant, nor that a Trump campaign aide had denied to an 
informant that anyone in the campaign was coordinating with Russia.

   Those omissions are problematic, though not necessarily surprising, Goitein 
said. 

   "Investigators become wedded to their theories of the case and invested in 
the success of their investigations," she said.

   For Republican senators, even self-proclaimed hawkish ones who supported 
FISA as a powerful counterterrorism tool in a post-9/11 era, the problems 
detailed by Horowitz were enough for them to demand change.

   Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, invoked the 
specter of J. Edgar Hoover, the longest-serving FBI director whose tenure 
included repeated civil liberties abuses.

   "I'd hate to lose the ability of the FISA court to operate at a time 
probably when we need it the most," Graham, R-S.C., told Horowitz. "But after 
your report, I have serious concerns about whether the FISA court can continue 
unless there is fundamental reform."

   Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he had warned for years that the FISA statute 
was ripe for abuse and that "it's not a question of if, but it's when and how 
soon will government officials get caught doing it."

   Wyden said he would like to see new alliances.

   "I've always felt that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive --- 
that smart policies get you more of both and not so-so-smart policies get you 
less of both," he added.


(KR)

 
 
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