From J6 informants to FISA abuses, FBI boss had few answers to Congress’ most pressing questions
Wray responded to a lawmaker's question about data surveillance, saying, "Respectfully, this is a topic that gets very involved to explain."
FBI Director Christopher Wray declined to answer direct questions from lawmakers on several hot-button issues at a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.
The performance on Wednesday generated frustration on both sides of the political aisle, and a rebuke from FBI alumni.
“Chris Wray is tone deaf. He had an opportunity today to really start righting the ship, to start bringing the 50, 60 maybe 80 million Americans who don't trust the FBI,” retired Supervisory Special Agent Jeff Danik told Just the News. “And he really fumbled the ball.
“He did a disservice to the people that he shoves out in front of him every single day saying they are heroes, which they are, the frontline people,” he added.
Here are some of the issues that Wray did not address fully, and the fireworks that ensued.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)
Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz asked Wray about the FBI's alleged misuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act database under Section 702, which allows the government to spy electronically on foreign people outside the U.S., and about how many times that occurred under his watch.
Wray declined to confirm a specific number or explain why the illegal searches happened.
Special counsel John Durham's final report on the origins of the FBI probe into alleged collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia also found the agency abused the FISA process on numerous occasions.
"Again, I don't have the numbers as I sit here right now," Wray said after being repeatedly asked.
Gaetz shot back, saying, "It seems like a number you should know, how many times the FBI is breaking the law under your watch."
Wray told the committee that some individuals have been disciplined for misusing the database, but he declined to elaborate.
He acknowledged that there have been "failures" related to FISA but said the agency has implemented reforms that have led to "significant improvement" in terms of compliance.
FBI purchasing data from private companies
Democratic Rep. Primila Jayapal asked Wray if the FBI is purchasing Americans' personal data from private businesses such as Internet providers or social media companies.
She cited a report from the director of national intelligence's office that stated the FBI purchases commercially available data. Wray would not confirm or deny that the agency is purchasing such data. He also wouldn't say how the FBI uses any personal data it is able to obtain.
"Respectfully, this is a topic that gets very involved to explain, so what I would prefer to do is have our subject matters come back up and brief you," he said.
When pressed on the matter, Wray said he is unaware of the FBI purchasing data that provides geolocation information from Internet advertising. Jayapal said the reauthorization process for FISA this year will be a “very difficult” process unless Congress has a better understanding of how Americans’ civil liberties are being protected.
Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, chimed in, saying the issue she raised is of bipartisan concern.
Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot
California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa asked Wray whether one or more FBI agents had entered the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and Wray would not answer directly.
He instead referred Issa to existing court filings. Other lawmakers asked similar questions about FBI agents in the crowd or in the U.S. Capitol during the riot, but Wray said his office would make the relevant court filings available to the committee.
Such questions are being asked amid speculation the agents infiltrated some of the groups that staged the riot and even encouraged them to riot so that they would get arrested.
FBI memo related to Catholics
Jordan pressed Wray on the Richmond FBI field office memo about "radical traditional Catholics" and the far-right.
Wray said the memo is subject to an "internal review" and he "ordered it removed from the FBI systems," statements that had already been widely reported after news stories earlier this year about the memo.
He also said the memo didn't result in any specific investigative action.
Jordan asked whether the committee will be able to obtain a redacted copy of the memo and speak to the FBI employees who wrote it. However, Wray declined to answer the question. Instead, he said the FBI would brief the committee on the findings of the internal investigation.
"That product is not something I will defend or excuse," he said.
Attorney Jonathan Turley called out Wray for declining to answer so many questions.
"Wray is continuing to refuse to answer questions for lack of knowledge," he tweeted. "It raises the question of willful blindness as when he denied that there were any FISA searches linked to Jan. 6th in prior testimony. Today he just shrugged and said that when he gave that apparently false representation he did not know what his agency was doing on FISA in that regard. Now that a court has revealed it, he says that he is now aware of it."
Bank of America
Jordan asked Wray whether the FBI asked financial institutions to turn over their customers' debit and credit card purchase histories in the Washington D.C. area for January 5 and 6 of 2021, in a suspected attempt to track this who committed crimes in the Jan. 6 riot.
"I don't know the answer," he said.
Jordan presented an email Bank of America turned over, showing correspondence between the FBI and the financial institution about obtaining customers' credit card activity.
"I'm not going to start engaging on specific correspondence. I don't have the whole string here," he said. "My understanding [is] that our engagement with Bank of America was lawful."