FBI tightening up wiretap protocols after watchdog report

WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI laid out new protocols Friday for how it conducts electronic surveillance in national security cases, responding to a Justice Department inspector general report that harshly criticized the bureau’s handling of the Russia investigation.

The changes, detailed in a 30-page filing with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, are meant to ensure that wiretap applications are more closely scrutinized before being submitted for a judge’s approval and that they contain accurate information about the reliability and potential bias of sources whom agents rely on.

The FBI also said additional training would be implemented.

The filing comes one month after the chief judge of the surveillance court — in a rare public directive — ordered the FBI to say how it would correct shortcomings identified in the watchdog report on the bureau’s investigation into ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

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The inspector general report found that FBI applications to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page, omitted key information about the credibility of sources it was relying on. It also alleged that an FBI lawyer doctored an email used in connection with one of the applications.

In response, the FBI said Friday that it was developing a checklist to be completed during the application process to ensure that all information about a source’s reliability and possible bias or motivation is disclosed to the court. The FBI is also revising a form used to request and renew surveillance so as to “elicit information that may undermine probable cause.”

The report, which also concluded that the FBI investigation was opened for a legitimate purpose, produced bipartisan calls for change. Some Democrats who had already been skeptical of the FBI’s expansive surveillance authorities raised fresh concerns, while Republican allies of Trump held up the report to argue that agents had overstepped their bounds and unfairly treated a campaign aide.

The inspector general’s office recommended multiple improvements to the FBI’s surveillance procedures and is also conducting an audit.

The surveillance court authorizes the FBI, with a warrant, to eavesdrop on American soil on individuals it believes to be agents of a foreign power. It’s a powerful tool for terrorism, espionage and other national security cases, though critics have said the court functions largely as a rubber stamp for the government and without adequate transparency or public scrutiny.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, in a 15-page declaration included in the filing, said that he plans to issue a bureau-wide email Monday informing the workforce of the changes it is implementing.

“Critically, the FBI must also balance the implementation of these actions with its ongoing responsibility to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States, during a time of ever-present threats to our national security,” Wray said.

“The leadership of the FBI has devoted — and will continue to devote — a substantial amount of time, thought, and effort to striking this balance, while paying scrupulous attention to its duty of candor to the Court and maintaining the trust of the American people,” he added.

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