On February 5, 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray appeared before the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing on FBI oversight.
Congressional oversight of the FBI is urgently needed. As Defending Rights & Dissent documented in our recent report Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse, the FBI has repeatedly used its counterterrorism authorities to spy on, monitor, and surveil social movements and civil society.
This week’s hearing came on the heels of increased concern about the FBI. After an Inspector General report criticized the FBI’s FISA warrant applications for Carter Page, many are questioning how the FBI uses its foreign counterintelligence powers. Additionally, revelations about the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremism” threat assessments and the existence of a program called IRONFIST to mitigate this nonexistent threat have also raised concerns about how the FBI treats racial justice movements.
Both Democrats and Republicans alike brought up the FBI’s surveillance of Carter Page. Republicans expressed shock that such abuse could occur. Democrats typically acknowledged the abuse, but stressed it did not reflect on the character of the FBI.
No one tasked with sitting on the House Judiciary Committee should be shocked that the FBI has abused its expansive foreign counterintelligence and international terrorism related surveillance tools. Not only have civil liberties organizations like Defending Rights & Dissent warned they could be abused, time and time again the FBI has been caught doing so.
The expansive surveillance tools and the FBI’s history of abusing them calls for real oversight, not hand wringing about how the latest surveillance abuses means the FBI is hurting its own reputation.
Another concern was white supremacist violence. Wray claimed that the FBI had elevated racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism to the same threat level as ISIS or “homegrown violent extremism.” However, the FBI created that category by combining together white supremacist violence with so-called “Black Identity Extremism.” Black Identity Extremism, a term made up by the FBI, suggests that African-American concern about societal racism could lead to “retaliatory lethal violence” against police. This insidious logic equates First Amendment-protect protest against social injustice with violence. Combining it with white supremacist violence not only creates a false equivalency, it potentialy obscures just where FBI resources are going.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) directly raised this issue to Wray. Bass also asked the FBI Director about the IRONFIRST program. Wray claimed he was unfamiliar with it, but would get back to her.
While the threat of white supremacist violence is real, it is important that geninue fears not be cynically manipulated to give the FBI even more powers. The last thing the FBI needs is greater surveillance authorities. Unfortunately, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) claimed white supremacist were using encrypted devices to organize violence and escape being held accountable for their action. It is unclear what specific incident he referred to. Defending Rights & Dissent is adamantly opposed to any attempts to let the FBI undermine strong encryption.
The FBI both has expansive surveillance powers and a long history of abusing civil liberties. Congress must exercise oversight over the FBI. This requires approaching these abuses as what they are–longstanding, systemic problems. Those concerned about FBI surveillance of Carter Page cannot treat it an isolated incident or surprise. It is fully in line with what we have long known about the FBI.
Unfortunately, for the most part, both Democrats and Republicans missed opportunities at least week’s hearing to really take on the issue of FBI abuse.