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Congressman says his name was wrongly searched by FBI

Rep. Darin LaHood says a classified report indicates Section 702 authority was wrongly used against him

Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) listens to witness testimony during a House select committee hearing on Feb. 28. (Nathan Howard/Reuters)
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An Illinois congressman lambasted the FBI at a hearing Thursday, saying that he had been wrongly targeted in sensitive data searches that authorities later determined should not have happened.

Rep. Darin LaHood (R) made the comments at an annual hearing before the House Intelligence Committee to discuss national security threats. But one overriding topic of discussion was the soon-to-expire portion of surveillance law known as Section 702, which operates as a massive database for agents and intelligence analysts to search.

“Unfortunately I believe that the FBI does have a significant trust issue with the members of Congress,” said LaHood, citing a recently declassified government report, which found misuses of the Section 702 authority.

A footnote of the report describes an incident in which an intelligence analyst repeatedly searched 702 data “using only the name of a U.S. congressman.”

LaHood noted that a Justice Department review of that incident found those queries “to be wholly inappropriate, noncompliant, and a violation, because they were overly broad.”

LaHood added that he had reviewed a classified summary of the incident “and it is my opinion that the member of Congress who was wrongly queried multiple times solely by his name was in fact me. Now this careless abuse of this critical tool by the FBI is unfortunate. Ironically, I think it gives me a good opportunity and a unique perspective about what’s wrong with the FBI,” he said.

The footnote said none of the information retrieved from the searches was disseminated elsewhere in the government. The queries retrieved information that was “unminimized,” meaning it was not subjected to procedures to shield the person’s identity.

The Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence determined that the queries did not comply with the law “because they were overly broad,” according to the report.

LaHood’s criticism was directed at FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, who did not dispute LaHood’s assertion that the lawmaker’s name was the one wrongly queried. Wray insisted that the problems identified in the public documents released to date all happened before the FBI changed how it uses those surveillance authorities.

“I completely understand Congressman LaHood’s concerns,” Wray said. “We are absolutely committed to making sure that we show you, the rest of the members of Congress and the American people that we’re worthy of these incredibly valuable authorities,” Wray said.

Wray noted in testimony before the Senate on Wednesday that FBI queries of the Section 702 database for information on U.S. people — a significant concern of privacy advocates — dropped by 93 percent last year. He also noted that the FBI had created a new Office of Internal Audit to focus on the agency’s compliance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a law that authorizes both specific and broad types of surveillance and data collection.

In a statement, the FBI said it has tightened its procedures so that sensitive queries of the Section 702 data must undergo additional scrutiny and approval, including sign-off from the No. 2 official at the FBI.

The FBI was sharply criticized in 2019 over its use of FISA to surveil a former adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. A 2019 inspector general report found more than a dozen major errors or omissions in filings submitted to the FISA court and, in response, Wray ordered a host of changes to how the FBI uses that authority.

At Thursday’s hearing, Wray cited those many changes every time he was challenged on the FBI’s surveillance shortcomings. The back-and-forth comes at a critical time for the FBI and Justice Department, which has asked Congress to renew the Section 702 law that authorizes what many intelligence officials regard as a crown jewel of national security programs. Section 702 is due to expire at the end of this year, and LaHood predicted that it will not be renewed without lawmakers making changes to the law.

Wray also faced criticism from another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), on the FBI’s handling of politically sensitive investigations — particularly a long-running probe of the finances of President Biden’s son Hunter, and a search for classified documents conducted last year at former president Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.

Wray demurred on questions about Hunter Biden, saying there is an ongoing FBI investigation run by the U.S. attorney in Delaware, a holdover from the Trump administration. “I expect them to pursue that case as far as it takes,” Wray added.

Stefanik also asked the FBI director to discuss disagreements between some FBI agents and some Justice Department lawyers over how and when to search Trump’s home. Wray said he does not sign off on individual search warrants, “in that case or any other.” He said he would not talk about internal discussions “among the FBI or among the FBI and the Department of Justice.”

“Even though it’s been reported in The Washington Post?” Stefanik shot back.

“It may or may not be accurate,” Wray replied.