Attorney General William Barr leaves his home, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, in McLean, Va. (Photo: AP)
Attorney General William Barr is meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about expiring intelligence provisions a week after he told confidants he was considering resigning amid President Donald Trump’s refusal to heed his warning to stop tweeting about Justice Department cases.
Barr will meet with Republican senators on Tuesday during their weekly lunch to discuss the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other government intelligence laws. The meeting was scheduled weeks ago, long before Barr raised the prospect of a possible resignation, though tensions between the attorney general and the Republican president seem to have cooled in recent days.
Barr told people close to him early last week that he has considered leaving his post after Trump wouldn’t respect his request to stop tweeting about the Justice Department’s cases. The week before, Barr took a public swipe at Trump, saying in a television interview that the president’s tweets about department cases and staffers make it “impossible” for him to do his job.
Barr’s suggestion that he might quit over the president’s tweets left many close to Trump questioning whether the attorney general really was considering stepping aside, instead of believing he was trying to quell an internal uproar at the Department of Justice and bolster his own reputation and his ability to act on Trump’s behalf. In the days that followed, some of the president’s closest GOP allies scrambled to let Trump know they think Barr is the right person to lead his Justice Department.
Some of those lawmakers supporting Barr are pushing for reforms to the government’s secret surveillance program for those posing a national security risk. Their efforts have intensified after the Justice Department’s inspector general in December issued a scathing report that detailed significant errors and omissions in four applications to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to eavesdrop on the former Trump campaign aide Carter Page as part of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
But the push from Trump’s allies to change the FISA wiretap rules could complicate efforts in Congress to renew the USA Freedom Act that are set to expire next month, including one authority that enables the FBI to collect from a third party a wide range of documents and records on subjects in terrorism and national security investigations. The deadline is March 15, leaving Congress with little time to act.
The FBI believes the surveillance powers are vital in thwarting acts of terrorism, with Director Chris Wray urging Congress this month to permanently authorize them.
Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that none of the provisions at issue for renewal has anything to do with the mistakes made in the Page case and urged lawmakers to keep the issues separate.
“They are vital to our relentless efforts to keep something like 325 million American people safe,” Wray said of the surveillance powers.
Congress has historically been reluctant to let the government’s broad surveillance powers lapse, but calls for reform have received bipartisan support in the wake of the harshly critical inspector general’s report on the Russia investigation. The report produced an extraordinary, and rare, public rebuke from the chief judge of the court, who said the errors the FBI made in the Page case called into question the accuracy of applications made in other cases.
In response, the FBI committed to a series of reforms, including better training and safeguards aimed at ensuring that surveillance applications are more thorough and accurate and that information that could undercut the government’s arguments for surveillance is more clearly disclosed to the court.
David Kris, the former head of the Justice Department’s national security division who was assigned by the court to review the FBI’s proposed corrective actions, has said the FBI did not go far enough in the changes it planned to make.