The FBI misused its powerful digital surveillance powers nearly 300,000 times between 2020 and early 2021, including against January 6 protesters, according to a newly unsealed court document.
The powers, authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), allows FBI agents to search a database of electronic communications and other information, meant to look for foreign intelligence or terrorist activity.
According to the April 2022 court opinion written by Judge Rudolph Contreras, FBI employees ran 23,132 separate queries of presumed Americans “to find evidence of possible foreign influence,” although the analyst conducting the searches had “no indications of foreign influence related to the query term used.”
FBI employees conducted searches during the summer when violent protests erupted around the nation over George Floyd’s death. The FBI in June 2020 searched data for 133 people arrested in connection with “civil unrest and protests between approximatedly May 30, and June 18, 2020.” The FBI also conducted 656 queries around that time to vet people as informants, according to the filing.
The FBI also searched the communications of 19,000 donors to an unnamed congressional candidate, because the campaign was allegedly a target of foreign influence.
Senior FBI officials claimed to the Washington Post that the problems cited in the opinion have been fixed already.
“We’re not trying to hide from this stuff, but this type of noncompliance is unacceptable,” a senior FBI official told the outlet. Another senior law enforcement official claimed, “There was confusion historically about what the query standard was.
However, even Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) criticized the agency after the document was unsealed.
“There is important, secret information about how the government has interpreted Section 702 that Congress and the American people need to see before the law is renewed,” Wyden said in a statement. The law is set to expire by the end of the year unless renewed by Congress.
Just this week, Special Counsel John Durham released his final report, which blasted FBI officials for a lack of integrity when pursuing an investigation into the Trump campaign in 2016. The report said the FBI used unverified opposition research funded by the Clinton campaign to obtain four secret surveillance warrants against Trump campaign advisers, withholding exculpatory information from the FISA court.
Contreras wrote that “Compliance problems with the querying of Section 702 information have proven to be persistent and widespread.”
“If they are not substantially mitigated by these recent measures, it may become necessary to consider other responses, such as substantially limiting the number of FBI personnel with access to unminimized Section 702 information,” he wrote.
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