WASHINGTON (CN) — Attorney General William Barr urged Senate Republicans on Tuesday to renew expiring provisions of a controversial surveillance law that has come under fire from President Donald Trump after its use in investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Congress is facing a March 15 deadline to reauthorize several provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allow the FBI to gather specific types of records and documents when conducting counterterrorism or foreign intelligence investigations and wiretap and monitor certain people suspected of being national security threats.
The House Judiciary Committee is set to mark up a bill on Wednesday that would reauthorize those provisions through 2023 with some changes. The provisions were initially slated to expire in December, but Congress quietly re-upped them into March in a must-pass spending bill last year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters on Tuesday the Senate plans to take up the issue in the coming weeks and called reauthorization of the sunsetting provisions critical for national security.
“These tools have been overwhelmingly useful, according to our intelligence advisers, and I hope that when the Senate deals with these expiring provisions in a couple weeks, we’ll be able to continue to have them in law, which will of course provide maximum protection for the American people,” McConnell said.
But FISA has long been controversial, including among civil libertarians. That controversy has deepened recently with Trump’s criticisms of the process and a scathing inspector general report from December that found “serious errors” in the FBI’s use of the surveillance programs while investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters that Barr appeared largely supportive of the House reauthorization legislation at a lunch meeting Tuesday. The South Carolina Republican indicated the attorney general is also eying internal changes to how the Justice Department uses the surveillance programs at its disposal in ways that track with recommendations Inspector General Michael Horowitz made in his report.
Larger changes to the law, Graham said, should only come after Congress, including the committee he helms, learns more about what happened during the 2016 investigations.
Horowitz’s report particularly faulted the FBI’s handling of applications to a secretive intelligence court to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The provisions up for reauthorization are not related to the issues Horowitz identified in the Page applications.
Horowitz specifically rejected claims that the investigation was baseless, improper and predicated on political opposition to the president, though Trump has claimed the report vindicates him.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican whose criticisms of the surveillance law long predate Trump, said he will continue his push for larger reforms to FISA and push back against a clean reauthorization. Paul said the reforms Barr mentioned are a good idea, but should be set in law rather than in regulations that a new administration could easily undo.
“Well, there’s some of the things that, yeah, need to be done, and I’m glad the administration is doing them, they’re just not good enough because I think that the next administration could easily change them and that’s a problem,” Paul said.