‘Chilling’: Rights Advocates Blast FBI for Abusing Surveillance Tool 278,000+ Times

“The FBI’s systematic misuse of these resources proves that it (and the rest of the federal government) simply can’t be trusted to wield this sort of power,” said one campaigner. “Let 702 die.”

By Jessica Corbett Published 5-20-2023 by Common Dreams

Image: Data Foundry

Friday’s “alarming” revelations about U.S. law enforcement’s abuse of a powerful surveillance tool “confirmed the worst fears of advocates” and likely further complicated a brewing battle in Congress over reauthorizing a constitutionally dubious spying law.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)—which is set to expire at the end of this year unless reauthorized by federal lawmakers—empowers the U.S. government to engage in warrantless surveillance of electronic communications. Although the law only authorizes targeting foreigners located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information, a massive amount of Americans’ data is also collected.

On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), released a pair of redacted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions—one which revealed that in 2020 and early 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) misused the Section 702 database over 278,000 times.

The “persistent and widespread” violations by the FBI—which is part of the DOJ—include searches for information related to crime victims, protesters arrested after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, donors to a congressional candidate, and people suspected of breaching the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The New York Times reported that “a senior FBI official said that in those cases, the analysts misunderstood the standard and were required to undergo additional training,” and a representative for the DOJ disclosed that the unidentified political candidate lost to an incumbent lawmaker.

The ODNI’s statement about the court documents insists that “all of these compliance incidents occurred prior to FBI deploying a series of remedial measures beginning in the summer of 2021 and through 2022. As a result, these compliance incidents do not reflect FBI’s querying practices subsequent to the full deployment of the remedial measures.”

However, exposure of the FBI’s conduct prompted fresh demands from civil liberties advocates in Congress and beyond for seriously reforming or even ending Section 702, with several critics casting doubt on claims that the bureau—and other agencies with access to the collected data—will behave absent outside intervention.

“These abuses have been going on for years and despite recent changes in FBI practices, these systematic violations of Americans’ privacy require congressional action,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) declared Friday. “If Section 702 is to be reauthorized, there must be statutory reforms to ensure that the checks and balances are in place to put an end to these abuses.”

“I am disappointed at the extent of the redactions in the opinions released today,” he added, pledging to pressure ODNI to inform the public about the interpretation of the law behind closed doors. “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.”

House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) also weighed in, though he noted his hesitation to do so given that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has created the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government—which has been called the “Insurrection Protection Committee” and a “fascist power grab to evade accountability” by progressive lawmakers:

In the middle of Chairman Jordan’s overzealous attack on federal law enforcement and the absurd claims advanced by the MAGA crowd on the weaponization subcommittee, I am hesitant to comment at all—but the abuse of FISA authority detailed in this opinion demands a response from all members of Congress. Section 702 exists only to protect the country from external threats to our national security. The government may only use it to target non-U.S. persons located outside of the United States. If the FBI insists on using it for routine domestic criminal investigations, without a warrant or probable cause, then perhaps they should not have access to this information at all. The problem is not that the FBI unlawfully targeted thousands of Americans of any particular political view. They appear to have conducted backdoor searches on Black Lives Matter protestors, January 6th rioters, and everyone in between. The problem is that they unlawfully targeted thousands of Americans. Period.

The FBI says that they have instituted new procedures to make this kind of abuse impossible. They have made that promise before. Without significant changes to the law to prevent this abuse, I will oppose the reauthorization of this authority.

Civil society groups that have for years sounded the alarm about Section 702 responded similarly to the latest revelations.

“Today’s disclosures underscore the need for Congress to rein in the FBI’s egregious abuses of this law, including warrantless searches using the names of people who donated to a congressional candidate,” Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, toldThe Associated Press Friday. “These unlawful searches undermine our core constitutional rights and threaten the bedrock of our democracy. It’s clear the FBI can’t be left to police itself.”

The Washington Post noted that “this is not the only time the FBI has been in trouble for the database. Another recent audit found multiple problems, including that the FBI used the database to search for the name of a member of Congress.”

“For the FBI to misuse Section 702 to spy on people protesting the killing of George Floyd, political donors, and victims of crimes is an unspeakable abuse of trust,” said Demand Progress senior policy counsel Sean Vitka. “Congress must enact comprehensive privacy protections for people in the United States, against all forms of warrantless surveillance, or Section 702 must fall. If the administration wants to see this law survive in any form, it should publicly embrace this reality.”

The Biden administration in recent months has urged Congress to reauthorize Section 702, including in a February letter to top Democratic and Republican lawmakers from Attorney General Merrick Garland and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence.

Vitka asserted that the “shocking” abuse is “unmatched since the days of J. Edgar Hoover,” a former longtime FBI director also referenced by Jake Laperruque, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Security & Surveillance Project.

“Even with the long history of FBI misuse of FISA 702, these latest revelations should set off alarm bells across Congress,” said Laperruque. “The systemic misuse of this warrantless surveillance tool has made FISA 702 as toxic as COINTELPRO and the FBI abuses of the Hoover years. Absent a full overhaul of Section 702 and related surveillance powers, Congress should not allow the law to be extended past this year.”

“For decades, we’ve seen surveillance abuse target political dissidents and marginalized communities, and worried a defensive search exception for FISA 702 could be misused the same way,” he added, referring to queries seeking data on someone who may be a victim or target of a foreign influence operation. “This shocking example of ‘defensive searches’ being an excuse to pull up the communications of a batch of 19,000 political donors without a warrant should end the discussion of whether any type of ‘defensive search’ exception is safe or acceptable.”

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said in a series of tweets Friday that “it’s time to end this charade once and for all. The Fourth Amendment requires the government to show probable cause to a court if it wants to access Americans’ communications.”

“Backdoor searches provide an end-run around this requirement under the best of circumstances and they are indefensible when the [government] is violating its own minimal standards in ways that directly impact Americans’ rights to engage in political protest, donate to political campaigns, or just live their lives free from [government] scrutiny based on race or ethnicity,” she added. “Congress should not authorize Section 702 without sweeping reforms, starting with a warrant requirement to conduct U.S. person queries of any data the government obtained without a warrant based on the claim that it was not targeting Americans.”

In a Friday opinion piece for Fast Company, Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, argued that the data collected under Section 702 “is nothing short of a loaded gun aimed at the heart of a democracy, a lawless digital dragnet systematically abused by those who swore to uphold the law.”

The campaigner continued:

As civil rights groups warned would happen, FBI agents just couldn’t help themselves. Rather than follow the limits that were supposed to protect Americans from this international dragnet, agents used this terrifying tool to target protesters and domestic suspects. And the abuses should be chilling to all of us, no matter where we sit on the political spectrum…

It would have been disturbing if these sorts of egregious examples happened just a few times, but to see the FBI’s systematic misuse of these resources proves that it (and the rest of the federal government) simply can’t be trusted to wield this sort of power.

“If the FBI is willing to break the law this brazenly, Congress and the administration must acknowledge that there’s no set of guardrails, no Band-Aid, that can fix 702 and keep the public safe,” he concluded. “The only way to safeguard our data and our rights is to do what we should have done a long time ago: Let 702 die.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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