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Matt Gaetz Confronts DOJ Over Charge More Than 10,000 Government Workers Can Conduct ‘Backdoor’ Surveillance on Americans

During a hearing on “Fixing FISA” in front of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance on Thursday, Inspector General Michael Horowitz spoke about concerning flaws in the FBI’s use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) powers.

Horowitz, who previously uncovered serious issues with FISA during the Trump-Russia investigation, highlighted the troubling problems with the bureau’s use of FISA during his testimony before Congress. The hearing aimed to address the shortcomings of FISA and suggest potential solutions to improve its use in the future.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz was unable to provide a clear answer when questioned by Republican Florida Representative Matt Gaetz about the number of federal government officials authorized to conduct backdoor searches on Americans using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Under FISA Section 702, intelligence agencies have the authority to conduct targeted surveillance on non-U.S. individuals outside the country, but this power has been misused on Americans in the past. According to the 2022 Transparency report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, there were a staggering 3.4 million backdoor searches conducted in 2021. These figures highlight the potential for abuse of FISA, and raise concerns about the privacy of American citizens.

Some Republicans in both the House and Senate have expressed opposition to the reauthorization of FISA, citing previous abuses that were exposed, in part, by Inspector General Michael Horowitz. These abuses were related to the FBI’s use of British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s discredited dossier to obtain flawed FISA surveillance against Carter Page, a former Trump campaign associate, both during and after the 2016 election.

Last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) disclosed information regarding the number of searches conducted by the FBI under Section 702 that targeted the data or communications of American citizens. According to ODNI, there were “fewer than” 1.32 million searches in 2020, and “fewer than” 3.39 million searches in 2021. These figures have raised concerns about the potential for FISA abuse and the impact on the privacy of American citizens.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) asked Horowitz about those more than 3 million “backdoor searches.”

“It’s obviously concerning that there are that volume of searches and particularly concerning the error rate that was reported on in the last two years,” Horowitz said, adding that he believed the error rate of mistaken or improper searches to be “around 30%.”

There was around a 30% error rate in these queries, Horowitz said in his testimony.

“How many people can perform these backdoor queries?” Gaetz asked.

“I’m going to defer to board members because you have the review ongoing,” Horowitz responded, referring to Sharon Bradford Franklin, Chair of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

“I’m afraid I don’t have those figures at my fingertips in terms of the number of people that can conduct those types of searches,” she responded.

“If I represent to you that we believe there may be north of 10,000 people in the federal government that can perform those queries, would anyone have a basis to disagree with that assessment?” Gaetz asked.

“No,” Horowitz said.

The Biden administration released a statement supporting the reauthorization of Section 702 on Feb. 28. 

“The Biden-Harris Administration strongly supports the reauthorization by Congress of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a vital intelligence collection authority, which the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence conveyed today in a joint letter to congressional leadership,” the White House statement said. “Section 702 has proven a cornerstone of U.S. national security. This authority is an invaluable tool that continues to protect Americans every day and is crucial to ensuring that U.S. defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies can respond to threats from the People’s Republic of China, Russia, nefarious cyber actors, terrorists, and those who seek to harm our critical infrastructure.”

“Reauthorization of Section 702 and other expiring FISA provisions is a top priority for the Administration,” the statement continued. “I have asked Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer to coordinate the reauthorization effort for the White House, in close partnership with the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other federal partners, as we engage constructively with the Congress to preserve this essential tool for protecting the United States.”

The DOJ Inspector General previously issued a statement to Congress expressing the many violations of procedure the FBI committed during its Crossfire Hurricane operation to investigate potential Russian collusion with then-candidate Donald Trump.

“The FBI fell far short of these standards in the applications targeting Carter Page, even though the FBI recognized that these applications would be subject to greater scrutiny than most FISA applications,” Horowitz found. “In addition, we identified numerous instances of non-compliance with the FBI’s factual accuracy review procedures (the “Woods Procedures”) in connection with the four Carter Page FISA applications.”

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