April 20, 2024 – A top FBI official encourages employees to continue investigating Americans using warrantless wiretaps

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A top FBI official is encouraging employees to continue to investigate Americans using a warrantless foreign surveillance program in an effort to justify the bureau’s spy powers, according to an internal email obtained by WIRED.

Known as Section 702, the program is controversial for having been misused by the FBI to target US protesters, journalists, and even a sitting member of Congress. US lawmakers, nevertheless, voted to extend the program in April for an additional two years, while codifying a slew of procedures that the FBI claims is working to stop the abuse.

FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate admits to Senate Judiciary Cmte. it ‘unintentionally’ spied on 278,000 Americans, June 2023. (Credit: Screenshot via Twitter/@HawleyMO)

Obtained by WIRED, an April 20 email authored by FBI deputy director Paul Abbate to employees states: “To continue to demonstrate why tools like this are essential to our mission, we need to use them, while also holding ourselves accountable for doing so properly and in compliance with legal requirements.” [Emphasis his.]

Added Abbate: “I urge everyone to continue to look for ways to appropriately use US person queries to advance the mission, with the added confidence that this new pre-approval requirement will help ensure that those queries are fully compliant with the law.”

The FBI did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment about Abbate’s email.

“The deputy director’s email seems to show that the FBI is actively pushing for more surveillance of Americans, not out of necessity but as a default,” says US representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California. “This directly contradicts earlier assertions from the FBI during the debate over Section 702’s reauthorization.”

Authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the 702 program permits the government to enlist American companies to eavesdrop on a variety of communications—calls, texts, emails, and possibly other forms of messaging—all without the need for a search warrant. The key requirement for the program is that at least one of the recipients (the individual “targeted”) be a foreigner reasonably believed to be somewhere other than on US soil.

In a statement to Congress last year, FBI director Christopher Wray emphasized that the bureau’s focus was on “dramatically reducing” the number of times its agents scoured the 702 database for information on Americans. (Read more: Wired, 5/08/2024) (Archive)