Congress faces a March 15 deadline to extend the expiring provisions, and there are internal disagreements between Republicans — as well as with Democrats — about how to overhaul the surveillance law, which has become a linchpin in the fight to reform the FBI after a scathing review of its work in the Russia investigation.
In a meeting behind closed doors on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Barr asked GOP senators to extend the expiring provisions while he takes targeted steps administratively to begin reforming elements of the law within the Justice Department. In the meantime, he indicated, Congress can work on broader reforms that can be enacted at a later time, according to several senators and a senior Justice Department official who spoke to CNN.
Barr also told the lawmakers that his approach had the support of the National Security Council, the intelligence community and the FBI, although he acknowledged to the senators that there are differing opinions within the White House, including at the Domestic Policy Council, the DOJ official said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham told CNN he believes there’s disagreement with some White House staff members and Barr over the strategy. “I don’t know who the staff people are but the FBI, the national security division, all of them support Barr’s position,” Graham said.
Barr briefed the White House before delivering his message to the senators, according to the DOJ official, and Graham said it was his “understanding” that President Donald Trump told Barr that he backed the attorney general’s strategy in the meeting. “The President said this is your responsibility,” Graham said.
Barr’s posture Tuesday exposed the fault lines in the White House and the Republican party as the administration and lawmakers dash to consider the provisions ahead of the deadline next month. It also set up a collision course with some House Republicans, who have clamored for sweeping changes to the surveillance program in the wake of the Justice Department inspector general report in December that criticized the FBI for a series of errors as they sought to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.
The three surveillance tools on the verge of lapsing are provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that broaden the FBI’s authority to wiretap certain targets and request key documents. They are separate from the tools that the FBI used on Page beginning in 2016 as part of their counterintelligence investigation into potential ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“The attorney general just wanted to underscore again the importance of these provisions that were enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attack,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after the session. “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 having them in law, which will of course provide maximum protection for the American people.”
The attorney general’s appearance also comes amid a crisis at the Justice Department over the sentencing of the President’s friend Roger Stone that called into question Barr’s independence from political pressure. Earlier this month, Barr shared an unusual criticism of the President in a television interview, and last week he told associates that he was considering resigning over Trump’s tweets about ongoing Justice Department cases. The pair’s relationship has apparently simmered in recent days.
While the tension between the attorney general and the President did not specifically come up in the meeting, Barr was received warmly and with multiple rounds of applause. Several senators used the session to praise Barr’s work and make clear he has broad support within the Senate Republican conference.
Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said Barr did not specifically say if he intends to stay on the job for the long haul but that was the impression he gave through his actions.
“He was engaged on all the issues. He was up here, obviously, for a specific purpose to try and push forward with these legislative authorities that need to be extended. I think the impression our members have is he is here to stay and that certainly would be welcome news to Senate Republicans,” Thune said.
As lawmakers consider changes to the surveillance law, the Justice Department inspector general is conducting his own review of the FBI’s use of the law, and the FBI has begun implementing more than 40 corrective actions based on recommendations in the report, including changes to make the processes for seeking FISA warrants “more stringent and less susceptible to mistake or inaccuracy,” FBI Director Christopher Wray has said. But at a hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Wray was met with skepticism and outrage from conservatives who wanted more to be done, and Trump has continued to attack the law enforcement agency for the investigation.
Reps. Doug Collins and Devin Nunes, the top Republicans on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees respectively, warned in a letter sent last week to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that if the “historic abuses” were not considered in the renewal of the expiring authorities it could undermine the public’s trust in the FBI.
“While we are encouraged to hear you are not generally interested in terminating important counter-terrorism authorities set to expire March 15, 2020, we are at a loss in understanding the apparent lack of any recognition of the FISA abuse, which occurred over the last three years,” Collins and Nunes wrote. “It is critical we do not miss this opportunity to amend the law so no future president or presidential campaign must endure similar misuse of surveillance powers.”
Barr told the senators that he is open to larger reforms that could be enacted by Congress but said that will take time to put together. He said he is supportive of the approach being taken by Graham, who’s said that far-reaching updates to FISA law should come after his committee was able to further scrutinize the circumstances around the FBI’s failures in the Page case.
Graham told reporters Tuesday that his committee was going to begin deposing witnesses next week in its review and would have public witnesses down the line.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said “generally speaking” there’s a “bipartisan consensus” to extend the FISA provisions. “Whether or not we get to reforms, of which I’m a supporter after the Horowitz report, that’s probably not something we’ll get done in the short window we have in March,” Tillis said.
Some Democrats and civil libertarians have also traditionally called for reform to the FISA process, and the effort for more structural change has enjoyed an unusual marriage of that group with some fierce supporters of the President.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee this week put forward legislation that would extend the authorization of some of the expiring provisions while also expanding the role of an outside attorney to challenge the government’s claims in certain cases.
The legislation, put forward by Democrats, was crafted in consultation with the Justice Department and Republicans, but Collins said Tuesday that the proposal failed to “protect American citizens — including future presidents and presidential campaigns — from unlawful spying.” Lawmakers on the committee are set to review the legislation at a hearing Wednesday.
At the hearing this month with Wray, GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a close ally of the President who is expected to take over the minority leadership of the House Judiciary Committee, floated dramatic changes to the way the FBI gets warrants to wiretap targets under FISA, including inserting outside counsel into every case involving an American citizen and making transcripts of the proceedings available to lawmakers on the intelligence committees.
Wray expressed skepticism to both proposals, and argued that most of the requests the FBI made to the surveillance court were not controversial.
“The vast majority of the FISAs we do, both the initial applications and the renewals, are the kinds of applications that I am quite confident — we don’t know each other, but you wouldn’t lose any sleep over, and we wouldn’t want to grind to a halt,” Wray told Jordan.
Barr, too, has said some changes to the FISA system are necessary but vowed to defend the overall power, calling it in December a “critical tool” that is “essential to protect the security of the United States.”
This story has been updated to include additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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