Court rules FBI searches for info on Americans went against surveillance law

By Audrey Conklin

Partially declassified court documents released Tuesday say the FBI’s practice of conducting warrantless searches for information on Americans through government databases was in violation of U.S. surveillance law.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) ruled in 2018 that the FBI’s capacity to search government databases for information on certain individuals — or backdoor searches — without the necessary warrants to do so in 2017 and 2018 violated Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), according to a Tuesday blog post from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

The FISC found that the FBI’s search practices were not sufficient, but found the FBI’s amendments to their procedures sufficient, according to the DNI post.

FISC found tens of thousands of instances in which the FBI’s data-collection practices that date back to Sept. 11, 2001, violated Section 702 due to personnel misunderstanding or missteps, and the Bureau waited nearly a year to change its policies, according to The Wall Street Journal and the blog post.

Some queries used phone numbers and other forms of ID in an effort to uncover foreign intelligence information — a procedure that a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court found in March 2018 was not “reasonably designed” to find evidence, according to a report from the FBI Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

FISC also found that tens of thousands of queries for one person at a specific firm with potential access to secrets. In one March 2017 instance, the bureau conducted a search related to more than 70,000 emails, phone numbers or other forms of ID — including those of their own employees — WSJ reported.

FISA Judge James E. Boasberg said in a 2018 opinion released Tuesday that the FBI’s procedures for being “inconsistent with statutory minimization requirements and the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”

Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden called the FBI’s position in the case “baseless” in a Tuesday statement.

“Last year, when Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA, it accepted the FBI’s outright refusal to account for all its warrantless backdoor searches of Americans,” Wyden said, according to a press release from his office.

“Today’s release demonstrates how baseless the FBI’s position was and highlights Congress’ constitutional obligation to act independently and strengthen the checks and balances on government surveillance,” he continued. “[It] also reveals serious abuses in the FBI’s backdoor searches, underscoring the need for the government to seek a warrant before searching through mountains of private data on Americans. Finally, I am concerned that the government has redacted information in these releases that the public deserves to know.”

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Image courtesy of Federal Bureau of Investigation