In a recent report by The Hill, it has come to light that the FBI misused its surveillance powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), conducting searches for information on a U.S. senator, a state lawmaker, and a state judge without proper authorization. The revelations have raised concerns about the intelligence community’s use of surveillance tools and sparked calls for fundamental reforms.
Section 702 has long been a contentious tool, allowing warrantless spying on foreigners located abroad, but critics argue that it can also be exploited to gather information on American citizens. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) released an opinion detailing three instances where FBI personnel conducted searches of “sensitive query terms” involving U.S. public officials or candidates without obtaining approval from the FBI’s deputy director.
One example cited in the court opinion states, “In June 2022, an analyst conducted four queries of Section 702 information using the last names of a U.S. Senator and a state senator, without further limitation.” Although these officials were believed to be linked to a specific foreign intelligence service, the Department of Justice’s National Security Division found that the FBI did not meet the necessary standard to conduct such queries.
Another concerning case involved a Staff Operations Specialist using the Social Security number of a state judge who had reported alleged civil rights violations by a municipal chief of police. The identities of the individuals searched in these instances were not disclosed in the opinion.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) played a crucial role in obtaining the court opinion’s release. They expressed alarm over the misuse of Section 702 surveillance, pointing out that the program, which the government claims is focused on foreign adversaries, is routinely used against Americans, immigrants, and individuals without any suspected wrongdoing.
Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, stated, “The FBI continues to break the rules put in place to protect Americans, running illegal searches on public officials, including a U.S. senator, and it’s long past time for Congress to step in. As Congress debates reauthorizing Section 702, these opinions make clear why fundamental reforms are urgently needed.”
The FBI and the Department of Justice have defended their actions, highlighting recent FISA reforms and improvements in the bureau’s compliance with the querying standard. FBI Director Christopher Wray emphasized the importance of Section 702 in the fight against foreign adversaries and vowed to safeguard civil rights and liberties.
However, this is not the first time that Section 702 has been misused to target a lawmaker improperly. Earlier, Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) revealed that his name was searched using the tool.
The controversy surrounding Section 702 is further complicated by the fact that the provision is set to expire at the end of the year. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have stated that they will not support its reauthorization without significant reforms.
In response to the release of the court opinion, the FBI sent a letter to House and Senate leaders, assuring them that agents have complied with FISA guidelines at least 98 percent of the time. Nevertheless, some lawmakers, like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), remain skeptical about the transparency of intelligence agencies regarding their use of FISA. Wyden emphasized the need for reforms to protect the privacy of Americans who may have legitimate reasons for communicating with foreign governments and entities.
As the debate over Section 702 and its potential abuses rages on, the FBI is striving to rebuild trust with lawmakers and the public. The agency acknowledges the past non-compliance and is working to demonstrate how they use the tool responsibly while holding individuals accountable for any misuse.
The latest revelations about the improper surveillance of public officials have ignited a new wave of scrutiny and raised crucial questions about the balance between national security and the protection of civil liberties. As the expiration of Section 702 looms, the nation awaits the outcome of the heated debate in Congress and the potential reforms that may reshape the future of surveillance in the United States.