Newly unsealed documents show the FBI abused a digital surveillance tool nearly 300,000 times between 2020 and early 2021, running 23,132 inquiries alone after Jan. 6.
The Section 702 database, which the FBI is authorized to use to gather foreign intelligence information or if they believe there is evidence of a crime, was used on Jan. 6 suspects, along with congressional campaign donors and protestors arrested in riots after George Floyd was killed in 2020, a newly unsealed court document reveals.
An April 2022 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) opinion described these abuses, noting that the employee who ran the queries after Jan. 6 did so “to find evidence of possible foreign influence, although the analyst conducting the queries had no indications of foreign influence related to the query term used.”
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No “raw Section 702 information was accessed” as a result of Jan. 6 queries, according to the court document. A senior F.B.I. official said analysts “had a mistaken understanding of the standard” and were required to undergo training, according to The NY Times.
An FBI official conducted a search in June 2020 for individuals arrested “in connection with civil unrest and protests between approximately May 30 and June 18, 2020,” the same time Black Lives Matter protests were happening nationwide after the death of George Floyd.
An FBI analyst also “conducted a batch query for over 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign,” on a campaign the analyst said was a target of foreign influence. FISA court Judge Rudolph Contreras permitted Section 702 to continue for another year because he was “encouraged by the amendments to the FBI’s querying procedures,” but noted compliance problems “have proven to be persistent and widespread.”
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“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,” Contreras wrote.
Section 702 is set to expire at the end of 2023 unless Congress chooses to renew it, as it did in 2018. The Biden administration has expressed support for reauthorizing Section 702.
“This authority is an invaluable tool that continues to protect Americans every day and is crucial to ensuring that U.S. defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies can respond to threats from the People’s Republic of China, Russia, nefarious cyber actors, terrorists, and those who seek to harm our critical infrastructure,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement in February.
A senior FBI official told the DCNF that “As Director Wray has made clear, the errors described in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s opinion are completely unacceptable.”
They added: “As a result of the audits that revealed these instances of noncompliance, the FBI changed its querying procedures to make sure these errors do not happen again. These steps have led to significant improvement in the way we conduct queries of lawfully obtained Section 702 information. We are committed to continuing this work and providing greater transparency into the process to earn the trust of the American people and advance our mission of safeguarding both the nation’s security, and privacy and civil liberties, at the same time.”
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