Less than five months before the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act comes up for reauthorization, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) claimed without evidence on Thursday that secret government surveillance, authorized by FISA, helped stop an alleged plot to bomb and shoot up the U.S. Capitol—a version of events at odds with FBI's description of the case.
"We would have never known about this had it not been for the FISA program and our ability to collect information on people who pose an imminent threat," Boehner said at a press conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Senate and House Republicans were gathered for a two-day policy retreat.
The FBI claims that an informant led them to 20-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell, who was arrested in Ohio on Wednesday for alleged threats to attack the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In its affidavit released Wednesday, the Bureau said the informant—working under threat of criminal prosecution and with the guidance of government agents—told them that Cornell had posted videos and comments on Twitter supporting ISIS and violent jihad.
But according to The Washington Times, "Mr. Boehner said that wasn’t the complete story. He wouldn’t go into details, saying only that 'we’ll let the whole story roll out there'."
The recently re-elected Speaker said lawmakers need to keep the plot in mind as they decide what to do with the FISA provisions, used in secret by the National Security Agency to justify the bulk collection of all U.S. phone records, which are set to expire on June 1, 2015.
Critics of FISA were quick to push back against Boehner's claims.
FISA is an unjustified invasion of privacy. Boehner claims FISA stopped an attack, when in reality the plans were posted on social media.
— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) January 15, 2015
"I’m going to say this one more time because you’re going to hear about it for months and months to come as we attempt to reauthorize the FISA program," Boehner said. "Our government does not spy on Americans—unless they are Americans who are doing things that frankly tip off our law enforcement officials to an imminent threat. It was our law enforcement officials and those programs that helped us stop this person before he committed a heinous crime in our nation’s capital."
Politico notes: "The FBI affidavit did not discuss any use of National Security Agency surveillance or FISA in the case, but it did not rule it out either."
On Twitter, domestic surveillance expert Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel for the global digital rights group Access, called on Boehner to back up his statements.
Speaker Boehner should either provide support for his claim or withdraw it from the public record https://t.co/mlWD5Hf0eo
— Amie Stepanovich (@astepanovich) January 15, 2015
And New York Times reporter Carl Hulse suggested Boehner's claim was politically opportunistic.
Speaker Boehner credits FISA with interrupting Capitol plot. Will cite to preserve authority for surveillance in Hill fight later this year.
— carl hulse (@hillhulse) January 15, 2015
At the MaddowBlog, MSNBC contributor Steven Benen wrote:
I have no way of knowing what kind of sensitive information Boehner may have been given by intelligence officials about this case. Maybe FISA had something to do with this; maybe not.
I do know, however, that a lingering debate is still underway about the NSA and the scope of the government’s surveillance powers, and many conservative policymakers, including Boehner, have had trouble identifying real-world examples of the FISA law producing tangible results that demonstrate a need for the controversial programs.