WASHINGTON — A mysterious incident has loomed over a fight in Congress over reauthorizing an expiring surveillance warrants law: About three years ago, an analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation violated rules for searching an archive of messages released by the program were intercepted by making overly broad inquiries from an unknown member of Congress.
Talk of the incident, which became public with few more details in a footnote to a report released in December, took a surprising turn at a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. An Illinois Republican, Rep. Darin LaHood, identified himself as that legislator.
“I had the opportunity to review the classified summary of this violation, and I believe that the member of Congress who was mistakenly asked for his name only several times was actually me,” he said from the podium.
Mr. LaHood is not just any random lawmaker. He is the head of a bipartisan task force of Intelligence Committee members trying to persuade Congress to reauthorize the questionable warrantless surveillance law, known as Section 702.
Section 702 authorizes the government, without a warrant, and by American companies like Google and AT&T, to collect the private messages of targeted foreigners abroad — even if they’re communicating with Americans. The FBI’s ability to search the archive of intercepted messages for information about Americans has been a subject of controversy.
Elected to Congress in 2015, Mr. LaHood is a former counterterrorism attorney and the son of Ray LaHood, who was also a Republican member of Congress from Illinois and later served as Secretary of Transportation in the Obama administration.
Mr. LaHood gave no further details about the incident. But he was scathing in his remarks to the committee, calling the communications requests involving a member of Congress a egregious violation that betrayed confidence in the state’s supervisory powers and “could be viewed as a threat to the separation of powers.”
At the same time, he made it clear that he still believed Congress needed to reauthorize Section 702, which he hailed as an important tool in countering a wide range of foreign threats. Citing FBI abuses, he told a number of witnesses that the government needed to do more to build public and congressional trust in order to secure the extension of the law.
“This reckless misuse of this critical tool by the FBI is unfortunate,” he said. “Ironically, I think it gives me a good opportunity and a unique perspective on what’s wrong with the FBI and the problems the FBI has.”
While lawmakers approved Section 702 again in 2012 and 2018, its prospects for an extension this time stand steeper. Civil rights activists, who have long been skeptical of Section 702 because of its impact on American privacy, are joined by Republicans who share former President Donald J. Trump’s distrust of security agencies and surveillance.
Mr. LaHood pointed to a recently declassified report concerning “compliance incidents” in which officers violated rules for searching archives of collected messages over a six-month period from late 2019 to mid-2020.
Most were for unauthorized purposes, such as checking maintenance personnel and potential whistleblowers. But one concerned the politically charged matter of an FBI analyst’s inappropriate requests for news involving a congressman whom the report did not identify. It said the query returned raw Section 702 intercepted messages that were opened and read.
As the report points out, the problem wasn’t that the analyst had asked for information about a congressman. The report said there were documented facts that led the analyst to make the inquiries, and while it didn’t say what they were, it didn’t criticize the rationale.
Rather, the report said that the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence considered the queries “too broad” because the analyst incorrectly used the congressman’s name as just a single broad search term without also using narrowing terms , to narrow it down all results to material on the specific topic at hand.
Last month, Arizona Republican Rep. Andy Biggs urged FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to release details of the incident — including a demand to know if the relevant lawmaker had been briefed.
Mr. LaHood said that “the report’s characterization of this FBI analyst’s approach as a mere misunderstanding of interrogation procedures is indicative of the culture that the FBI expects and even tolerates.”
“It is also an indication that the FBI continues to fail to see how abuse of this authority is viewed on Capitol Hill,” he said.
But he also used most of his remaining time to present and provide testimony about changes the FBI has made to its systems and training since the summer of 2021, which has led to a decrease in requests for information about communications with Americans to get value of the program in fighting Chinese espionage.
The FBI press office said in a statement it could not comment on specific requests. However, the statement cited “broad changes” to better enforce compliance with the rules for querying the 702 repository for information about Americans “after the period covered in the reports brought forward at today’s hearing.” .
One was particularly highlighted: “‘Sensitive’ inquiries involving elected officials now require the approval of the Deputy Director.”
Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.