The Section 702 program, first amended to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008 and reauthorized in 2012, allows intelligence agencies to legally monitor emails and phone calls of foreign nationals outside of the US and is set to expire at the end of the year.
The Trump administration wants a clean reauthorization of the law, but a bipartisan group in the House judiciary committee wants to force law enforcement agencies like the FBI to obtain a warrant to look at the content of communications returned from a query of the Section 702 database for a criminal investigation.
The names and communications of American citizens are often swept up in the intercepted content, prompting concerns of civil liberty advocates.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Wray said Friday that narrowing the ability of the FBI to utilize the information would be a "self-inflicted wound" that "would create a serious risk to the American public." Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers also addressed the think tank Friday, making the Trump administration's most public push yet for reauthorization.
"I just don't think they understand the consequences of what they're asking for," Wray said. "Any restriction on our ability to access the information that's already constitutionally collected in our database, I just think is a really tragic and needless restriction. And I just beg the country not to go there again. I think we will regret it and I just am hoping that it doesn't take another attack for people to realize that."
Wray argued Friday any restriction in access would "delay (the FBI) when time is of the essence," and that proponents of restrictions were, though well-intentioned, building a wall between law enforcement and actionable information.
"When people now sit back and say 'Three-thousand people died on 9/11, how could the US government let this happen?' and one of the answers is 'Well, they had this wall,' and then people say, 'How could there be this wall?'" Wray said. "Folks, right now, that's what we're watching. This is what building a wall feels like."
It's a "myth," Wray said, that law enforcement uses the program, a counterintelligence tool for national security investigations, to build criminal prosecutions. Section 702 information has not been used as evidence in a traditional criminal case ever, except in about 10 terrorism prosecutions, he said.
"If we lose this legal authority, I can't replace this information," Rogers said. "That's how unique the data that we get from this is."
In one example from the past six months given by Rogers, information collected through Section 702 surveillance was shared with US foreign intelligence partners to tie a foreign terrorist behind an attack in Europe to ISIS and to identify others involved in the attack that the terror group had attempted to keep anonymous for use in future operations.
"This isn't just theoretical. We are taking people off the battlefield," Rogers said.
The three men and Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week brought their case to Capitol Hill in closed-door sessions, and the week before, officials from their agencies held a background briefing with reporters.
Coats on Friday called reauthorization the intelligence community's top priority and expressed dismay that some members of Congress had refused his invitations to see first-hand the value of the program.
"We are up against those who, frankly, just have a total mistrust in government," Coats said of advocates seeking Section 702 reform. "They just simply refuse to think that government has any interest in adhering to the Fourth Amendment or keeping their privacy."
"We're very proud of the track record that we have of our legal compliance with the law," Rogers said. "When we make a mistake we will stand up, we will acknowledge it and we will own it."