(…) The FISA Court’s report detailed the nearly 300,000 abuses logged between 2020 and early 2021.
For instance: After the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, an FBI employee ran a whopping 23,132 separate queries of Americans “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,” Contreras found. Justice Department officials “concluded there was no specific factual basis to think the searches would turn up foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime” and the court opinion found that “no raw Section 702 information was accessed as a result of these queries.”
In June 2020, the FBI searched for digital data and communications of 133 people arrested “in connection with civil unrests and protests between approximately May 30, and June 18, 2020,” when protests and riots erupted across the country over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
That search was done, officials said, to see if there was counter-terrorism information about those individuals. When questioned about the searches later, FBI officials said it was reasonable for agents to think the searches would return foreign intelligence. The court opinion describing that effort has significant redactions, making it unclear why the FBI developed its theory.
Incredibly, the Court also found a long pattern between 2016 and 2020 in which the FBI conducted FISA searches targeting “individuals listed in police homicide reports, including victims, next-of-kin, witnesses, and suspects,” according to the court opinion. The Justice Department found these searches violated the rules “because there was no reasonable basis to expect they would return foreign intelligence or evidence of crime.”
In its defense, the FBI argued “that querying FISA information using identifiers of the victims — simply because they were homicide victims — was reasonably likely to retrieve evidence of crime.”
Even more egregiously, an FBI analyst “conducted a batch query for over 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign” because the campaign was supposedly “a target of foreign influence,” the opinion said.
Justice Department officials found that “only eight identifiers used in the query”—such as a name, phone number or an email address—”had sufficient ties to foreign influence activities” that complied with the FISA standards.
Officials said lawmakers who were briefed months ago about the problems have been pushing authorities to make them public. The delay in doing so was due to discussions of redactions of a separate part of the opinion, which described a novel application of surveillance techniques, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive national security matters.
Senior law enforcement officials said Friday that the problems in the report do not represent FBI’s current practices. The problems were discovered largely due to Justice Department audits, they said, and have been remedied.
“We’re not trying to hide from this stuff, but this type of non-compliance is unacceptable,” a senior FBI official said. “There was confusion historically about what the query standard was,” said another senior law enforcement official.
The FBI has rolled out a host of changes to how agents and analysts use the Section 702 database. While a previous version of the system automatically included it in a list of areas that agents could search for information, agents and analysts must now specifically seek and choose to search 702 information. FBI users of the database are also required to write, in their own words, why they think their search will return foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime, and an attorney must approve any “batch” searches involving large numbers of people.
In recent months, authorities have touted that the number of 702 searches conducted that involve U.S. residents or companies has dropped dramatically — more than 90 percent last year. Officials said Friday that the dropoff was largely the result of the Justice Department audit having found significant compliance failures by the FBI.
The problems identified by the court and the Justice Department are separate from criticism lodged against the FBI in 2019 by the Justice Department’s inspector general, and again this week by special counsel John Durham, over the FBI’s use of a different kind of foreign intelligence surveillance court order, which specifically targeted a former Trump adviser in 2016 and 2017 based on faulty and incomplete FBI applications.
In 2021, a follow-up report by Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz found “widespread” failures by the FBI to follow one of the key rules of FISA surveillance, indicating that the problems went far beyond the FBI’s investigation of former Trump adviser Carter Page.
Additionally, the court opinion included information regarding what officials called a “highly sensitive” surveillance technique, and a court debate about the novel use of that technique. Details about the technique are redacted, making it difficult to determine the purpose and scope of the controversial surveillance.
In a statement to American Greatness, Jordan said: “Chris Wray told us we can sleep well at night because of the FBI’s so-called Fisa reforms. But it just keeps getting worse.” (Read more: American Greatness, 5/19/2023) (Archive)