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FBI announces new curbs on controversial surveillance program as Congress considers whether to renew it

<i>Jacquelyn Martin/AP</i><br/>Senior Biden administration officials announced new disciplinary measures to prevent further FBI abuses under a controversial surveillance program that will expire at year’s end unless Congress renews it.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Senior Biden administration officials announced new disciplinary measures to prevent further FBI abuses under a controversial surveillance program that will expire at year’s end unless Congress renews it.

By Sean Lyngaas, CNN

(CNN) — Senior Biden administration officials on Tuesday announced new disciplinary measures to prevent further FBI abuses under a controversial surveillance program that will expire at year’s end unless Congress renews it.

A new “three strike” FBI policy will have analysts disciplined, or even fired, for three incidents in which they misuse the intelligence program, Deputy FBI Director Paul Abbate told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The program, known as Section 702, allows authorized US officials to search a vast database that gathers phone calls and text messages of foreign targets overseas from US telecommunications providers. The data can include the communications of Americans in touch with those foreign targets.

The new FBI disciplinary measures are a response to heated criticism of the FBI from lawmakers from both parties after recently revealed examples of FBI using the foreign intelligence tool to search for information on Americans.

US officials and many lawmakers agree that the program is vital to US national security, but the recently revealed abuses have complicated the program’s renewal and sharpened concerns in Congress about a lack of civil liberties protections.

“I’ve got to see more [reforms]” than what the Justice Department has presented to the committee in the last two years, said Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the committee.

The FBI improperly searched a Section 702 database for information on suspects in the January 6, 2021, US Capitol riot and people arrested at 2020 protests after the police killing of George Floyd, according to a court opinion that was unsealed and released last month.

Abbate and other senior officials from the CIA, National Security Agency and Justice Department made the case to lawmakers that, in the two years since those abuses, stringent reforms have been made to the approval process and procedures for the data searches.

The abuses “are wholly and completely unacceptable, and they do not reflect the high standards that we seek to hold ourselves to in the FBI,” Abbate told lawmakers.

Abbate and other senior officials touted the importance of Section 702 in foiling assassination plots, tracking drug traffickers and recovering millions of dollars in ransom payments to foreign cybercriminals. The majority of the intelligence that appears in President Joe Biden’s daily intelligence briefing comes from the program, officials said.

But lawmakers from both parties responded with a mix of support for the objectives of the program and an insistence that more safeguards for civil liberties are needed if the program is to be reauthorized.

The bitterly partisan political climate and Republican attacks on the FBI are also complicating Section 702’s renewal. During the hearing, Republicans Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn made lengthy denunciations of the FBI and accused the bureau of not doing enough to investigate the business dealings of the president’s son Hunter Biden. Abbate declined to comment on investigative matters and forcefully defended the bureau’s work as nonpartisan.

“With the release of even more examples of how Section 702 has proven useful in disrupting terrorist plots and recovering ransom payments, the government has done a good job of convincing most members of Congress that the statute needs to be re-authorized,” Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel at the NSA, told CNN.

“But that’s only half the battle; the other half is persuading Congress that the FBI can be trusted,” Gerstell said.

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