Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during an interview discussing his proposed legislation to make it illegal for social media platforms to be accessed by those under the age of 16, at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
Ryan Sun, Deseret News
Congressman Chris Stewart said House Republicans will not agree to reauthorize a law that gives intelligence agencies broad surveillance powers without “meaningful reform” after seeing how it was misused to justify spying on the Trump campaign and on hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Stewart, a Republican who represents Utah’s second district and a former Air Force officer, sits on the House Intelligence Committee, which oversees the U.S. intelligence community. This year, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act comes up for reauthorization, and advocates for the law — including the FBI — will likely face a fight in Congress.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Stewart said when the law came up for reauthorization five years ago, he was “one of the key advocates for it,” saying he helped persuade other lawmakers to support it.
“If you’ve lost guys like me, then you’ve lost a lot of people who are saying, not going to do it again. I’m not going to allow this kind of abuse we’ve seen over the last five years without some changes,” he said. “And I think that represents a broad majority of Republicans and some Democrats as well.
“And the FBI knows that, the Department of Justice knows that. They know they’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Stewarts’ comments come in the wake of the release of the Durham Report, written by special counsel John Durham, which said the FBI used false information to justify spying on former President Donald Trump’s campaign.
He also addressed information released last week showing that the FBI used FISA to spy on Americans over 278,000 times in 2020 and 2021, using Section 702 of the law, which gives them the ability to surveil digital communications.
“We won’t reauthorize 702 and FISA … we just simply will not give the FBI this type of power any longer without meaningful reform,” he said.
The latest revelations show the FBI used Section 702 to gain access to a massive database that’s meant to provide the intelligence community with the ability to monitor foreign threats, but they used it to spy on Americans involved in activities like Black Lives Matter protests, the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021, and even donors to a congressional campaign.
“You can’t give organizations like the FBI, or the CIA, or the National Security Agency, you can’t give these agencies enormous power, where they literally can look at any individual in America, and then not provide oversight,” Stewart said.
He said he doesn’t think these organizations should have the power to open investigations into hundreds of thousands of Americans “without any cause at all, without any warrant, without any suspicion of activity, just the ability to open … the book into your life.”
Congress does have some oversight over the FBI because they oversee their budget, Stewart said. But, he said, the FBI has ways of hiding information from lawmakers.
“They just poke their finger in the eye of Congress,” he said.
But for lawmakers who sit on the Intelligence Committee, information about the FBI’s overreach wasn’t a surprise, he said.
“There’s hardly anything in (the Durham) report that some of us haven’t known,” he said. “Those of us serving on our House Intelligence Committee, we were aware of almost everything there.”
He said members of Congress have been trying to raise awareness of problems within the intelligence community, but they just didn’t “have the microphone.”
“So, although (the Durham Report) didn’t release much information that was new, it was important for him to complete his report, because it was much harder to not pay attention to it than the congressional report,” he said.
Among the changes he would like to see, he said, include changes in leadership and culture at the FBI. He said it is difficult to legislate some of the necessary changes because ultimately they rely on the integrity of the people who lead the organization.
Stewart pointed to reports the FBI spied on some Catholic congregations.
“And they didn’t just say, in an offhand way, well, we should look at these guys. It was a coordinated, extensive effort to identify traditional Catholics as possible white supremacist terrorists. And that was signed off by the field agents and by the supervisory agents.” he said. “Those guys should be fired.”
He said there is a growing realization among the intelligence community that they have to make changes if they want Congress to reauthorize FISA.
Stewart said he doesn’t want the intelligence community to lose the ability to monitor threats from terrorists and other countries. But, he said, “they’ve just got to be reformed.”