Politics Tapping Trump's Anger About 2016 Surveillance, White House Seeks Overhaul of Spying Law

19:20  23 february  2020
19:20  23 february  2020 Source:   online.wsj.com

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President Trump tweeted in support of an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, on Thursday. Hours before the vote, President Trump set off last-minute turmoil as Republicans scrambled to secure enough support to extend the law without new privacy constraints.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer flatly denied Friday that the White House apologized to the British government after citing an uncorroborated Fox News report to allege that a UK intelligence agency spied on President Donald Trump at the behest of former President Barack Obama.

WASHINGTON—Senior White House officials are discussing plans to pursue an overhaul of how the government surveils individuals in the U.S. suspected of posing a national security risk, spurred in part by President Trump’s grievances about an investigation of an adviser on his 2016 presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Thursday that the process by which the government obtains secret surveillance warrants should be reformed, a conclusion that she said President Donald Trump had come to after revelations that individuals tied to his 2016 campaign

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.

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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.

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After Mr Trump ' s tweets earlier this month, the New York Times quoted unnamed senior officials reporting that Mr Comey had said the claim was false and had asked the justice department to publicly reject it. Mr Clapper said the intelligence agencies he had supervised did not wiretap Mr Trump last

President Donald Trump on Friday signed into law a measure that reauthorizes powerful electronic surveillance tools for another six years. Trump ' s Friday tweet alluded to his previous comments, which implied that the FISA 702 statute had been used to spy on Trump aides during the 2016

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.

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The White House also announced that AG Barr has been delegated the authority to declassify information related to the surveillance review. Trump : Intelligence agencies must 'quickly and fully' cooperate with Barr review of 2016 surveillance .

President Donald Trump deflected blame for having angered the U.K. government by repeating an allegation he was spied on by British intelligence, and declined to back away from the unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, put him under surveillance . “We said nothing.

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.

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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.

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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 and is holding a Wednesday hearing on the report by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

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.

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Write to Andrew Restuccia at Andrew.Restuccia@wsj.com and Dustin Volz at dustin.volz@wsj.com

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