Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Real Answers Demanded After Barr Dodges on Government Authority to Aim 'Intrusive Surveillance Tools' at Protesters

"The public needs to know whether Attorney General Barr thinks President Trump can conduct mass surveillance of protesters without congressional authorization."

Jessica Corbett

An exchange about government spying powers between Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Attorney General William Barr during a Tuesday House Judiciary Committee hearing prompted calls for an immediate explanation from the Trump administration about the legal basis for using advanced surveillance techniques on protesters nationwide.

Lofgren, a California Democrat, explained in a series of tweets that she asked Barr to detail under what authority the U.S. government can use "intrusive surveillance tools" against protesters. Barr, Lofgren said, declined to give a "real answer."

The congresswoman specifically asked about the potential deployment of cell-site simulators, facial recognition, and sweeping surveillance of internet activity. Barr replied, "I really can't speak to those instances if they've in fact occurred."

After Lofgren clarified that she was seeking an answer about the legal basis of using such tactics, the attorney general said that "most of our cyber activities are conducted by the FBI under their law enforcement powers to detect and prevent crime."

As the congresswoman noted on Twitter, her questioning of Barr came amid a federal crackdown on protests against police brutality toward Black Americans in Portland, Oregon and President Donald Trump's threats to send teams to other major cities:

Demand Progress responded with a statement Tuesday calling on Barr to immediately disclose any legal basis he sees for the federal surveillance of protesters. The advocacy group also put the exchange into the context of Barr's history and broader concerns about government surveillance under the Trump administration.

"Today, Attorney General Barr refused to acknowledge whether the government is conducting dragnet surveillance of internet activity," said Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel at Demand Progress. "He further refused to acknowledge widely reported mass surveillance practices that he may have authorized when sending the [Drug Enforcement Administration] and other agencies after protesters."

"The public needs to know whether Attorney General Barr thinks President Trump can conduct mass surveillance of protesters without congressional authorization," Vitka argued, noting that Barr "has personally authorized lawless, mass surveillance in this country before, and did so by relying on radically aggressive interpretations of executive power, by secretly abusing statutory authority, and by hiding it under the DEA."

The questions Lofgren posed during the hearing were "critically important," explained Vitka.

"It is frighteningly plausible that Attorney General Barr has told the Trump administration it may conduct domestic mass surveillance with effectively no limits, potentially even in the absence of congressional authorization," he said. "The consequences would be staggering and the chilling of free speech is already being felt."

Referencing reports that U.S. government planes flew over Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C. last month and potentially spied on participants, Vitka added that "the planes are in the air. We need these answers now."

The Demand Progress statement highlighted recent examples of other members of Congress demanding answers from the administration about surveillance, particularly considering that the controversial Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act expired earlier this year and has not been reauthorized by federal lawmakers.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter (pdf) to Barr and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on July 21 asking them to confirm that federal agencies have terminated surveillance operations authorized under the now-expired FISA provisions and other related questions about the government's spy powers.

Along with highlighting the letter—which requests that Barr and Ratcliffe respond with answers by August 7—the advocacy group pointed out how Patrick Hovakimian, the nominee for general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, recently responded (pdf) to a pre-hearing question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Wyden asked: "Does the government collect web browsing and internet search history pursuant to Section 215? If so, what are or should be any limitations on such collection or the dissemination and use of such information? Does the government collect web browsing or internet search history pursuant to FISA Pen Register/Trap and Trace authorities?"

Hovakimian responded: "I believe it is important for the IC to use its authorities appropriately against valid intelligence targets. The amendments to Title V of FISA made by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act expired on March 15, 2020 and, to date, have not been reauthorized."

Given those recent exchanges between lawmakers and the administration, Demand Progress declared that "Barr's refusal to answer Rep. Lofgren's questions today adds to concerns that all of this may be occurring in secret without congressional authorization or oversight."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

ACLU Demands 'Truly Systemic Overhaul' of US Civilian Harm Policies

"While a serious Defense Department focus on civilian harm is long overdue and welcome, it's unclear that this directive will be enough," says director of the legal group's National Security Project.

Jessica Corbett ·


'This Is Not Over': Alaska Supreme Court Rejects Youth Climate Case

"With the state continuing to undermine their health, safety, and futures," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel, "we will evaluate our next steps and will continue to fight for climate justice."

Jessica Corbett ·


Analysis Finds 'Staggering' Rise in Voter Suppression After GOP Restrictions in Georgia

"This is why we are fighting this new law in court," said one voting rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Egregious': Pennsylvania Court Strikes Down Mail-In Voting Law

The ruling was stayed pending an appeal to the state's Supreme Court and as one voting advocate put it: "The fight's not over yet, folks."

Julia Conley ·


Big Win for Open Internet as Court Upholds California Net Neutrality Law

One legal advocate called the Ninth Circuit's opinion "a great decision and a major victory for internet users in California and nationwide."

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo