The FBI Director has warned that threats from entities like Iran cannot be effectively countered if Congress fails to renew a spying authority set to expire on December 31.
In a Senate hearing Tuesday, Christopher Wray warned that Section 702 of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is key to US national security and its ability to combat foreign terror.
“When it comes to foreign adversaries like Iran, whose actions across a whole host of threats have grown more brazen… or the People’s Republic of China, which poses a generational threat to our economic and national security, stripping the FBI of its 702 authorities would be a form of unilateral disarmament,” Wray said.
Section 702 of FISA allows intelligence agencies to monitor non-Americans outside the US and collect and analyze their communications, such as emails and text messages.
Calls for changes to Section 702 have emerged in Congress following revelations that the FBI improperly searched the database for exchanges with US citizens, including political protesters, campaign donors, and even members of Congress.
Critics argue that FISA 702 has become a backdoor to investigate Americans without warrants. However, the US government and the intelligence community contend that recent reforms prevent such abuse, and additional red tape would neutralize the tool in the face of foreign threats.
"In the last couple of years Iran has tried to assassinate a former US national security advisor on US soil,” Wray reminded the Senate Judiciary Committee.”[Iran] has tried to kidnap and kill an American journalist in NYC… and for extra credit, has tried to interfere in the last presidential elections. " He was referring to plots to kill former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as retaliation for the targeted killing of IRGC militant mastermind Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, in January 2020.
US officials say Section 702 has been critical to stopping weapons sales to Iran before, and “in 2022 to help the administration target an individual and foreign firm that attempted to circumvent US sanctions on Iran,” according to Politico.
Intelligence agencies had identified what the Iranian regime needed for its advanced weapons program, and then searched for those (including names of components and manufacturers) in the 702 database.
In his Senate hearing Tuesday, the FBI director warned again that “allowing 702 to lapse, or amending it in a way that undermines its effectiveness would be akin to laying bricks to rebuild another, pre-9/11-style wall.”
Opponents of the 702 say it invades Americans’ privacy, undermines trust, and oversteps constitutional boundaries. Some US lawmakers are proposing changes that would require a warrant to utilize the database for investigating US citizens.
Senator Mike Lee, one of the more vocal critics of Section 702, grilled Wray on potential abuses of the tool.
“When the FBI is allowed to police itself, and need not go to court to get a warrant based on evidence establishing probable cause—like every other law-enforcement agency in America—it abuses its power under FISA,” he later posted on X.
“When Wray insists that a warrant requirement would just be too difficult for FBI to comply with, that isn’t surprising,” Senator Lee said. “It's supposed to be hard for the government to spy on Americans. That's why we have a Constitution.”
It is expected that the Judiciary Committee proposal and a House Intelligence plan are introduced as amendments Wednesday, “moving forward only with the proposal that gathers the most votes,” according to Politico.