FBI Wrongly Searched Surveillance Data for US Senator’s Name, Court Finds

Jack Phillips
By Jack Phillips
July 21, 2023Judiciary
FBI Wrongly Searched Surveillance Data for US Senator’s Name, Court Finds
An FBI agent in a file photo. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

FBI employees and agents inappropriately searched foreign surveillance data for the last names of a state senator and a U.S. senator, said a court opinion that was released Friday.

The newly disclosed finding is included in the release of a 117-page order (pdf) declassified on July 16 by the federal judiciary’s foreign intelligence surveillance court in April—a rare move as that court generally issues rulings in secret.

In the court document, issued by Judge Rudolph Contreras, an unnamed FBI analyst in June 2022 conducted four separate searches of information that was collected via the warrantless surveillance program under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “using the last names of a U.S. Senator and a state senator.” Their names were not disclosed in the unsealed ruling.

It also showed the FBI analyst possessed information that showed the lawmakers were being targeted by a foreign intelligence operation. However, according to the court filing, the Justice Department’s national security division reviewed their searches and found they didn’t meet the FBI’s internal standards.

Another FBI employee improperly queried the Social Security number of a state judge who alleged civil rights violations by a municipal chief of police, according to the opinion of the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The judge’s Social Security number was accessed in October of last year, but the agency also found the analyst didn’t have enough evidence to be authorized to carry out the search.

In the case of the state judge, an FBI specialist searched a database using the Social Security number after the judge “had complained to FBI about alleged civil rights violations perpetrated by a municipal chief of police,” said the filing.

Other than names, the surveillance court opinion also did not disclose the states or party affiliations of the individuals whose names were searched by FBI staff. Few other details were provided, including that foreign entities were targeting the aforementioned officials.

The unnamed U.S. senator has been notified of the search. The state senator and state judge have not, an FBI official told news outlets.

Other Details

The total number of searches for Americans appears to have dropped, the filing said. Over a year-long period ending in March, the FBI ran about 180,000 searches of U.S. citizens and other American entities, the court said.

That’s well below the roughly 2 million searches reported just between December 2020 and February 2021, something the foreign surveillance judge wrote “should indicate less intrusion into the private communications of U.S. persons.”

But despite the FBI’s and Mr. Contreras’ assurances, the improper searches of the Section 702 surveillance collection program could imperil a push by the White House to have the tool reauthorized before it is scheduled to expire by the end of this year.

Christopher Wray
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies at a hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee in Congress in Washington on Jan. 29, 2019. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

And in recent years, a growing number of Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have called on the bureau to clean up its act—or be dismantled in its entirety—after what they have said are attempts by top FBI officials to target conservatives and Republican politicians, including Mr. Trump.

Both Republican and Democrat lawmakers have proposed reforms to the Section 702 program in order for it to be reauthorized. Earlier this year, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told Politico that he wouldn’t support extending the tool unless changes are made, suggesting that it shouldn’t be re-authorized at all.

“We’re working on the kind of reforms we think need to happen, but frankly I think you should have to go get a warrant,” Mr. Jordan said.

The court’s opinion also noted that the FBI improperly used warrantless search powers against American citizens more than 278,000 times in the year ending in November 2021. That included individuals who were allegedly involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol breach, donors to a failed congressional candidate, and George Floyd-related demonstrators during the summer 2020 riots.

“Some violations of the querying standard coincided with failure to follow an FBI policy that requires prior Deputy Director approval to use ‘sensitive query terms’ — e.g. identifiers of domestic public officials, domestic political candidates, members of the news media, academics, and religious organizations or persons prominent within them,” the opinion said.

Right as the court ruling was released to the public, the FBI issued a statement that claimed the opinion “highlighted how the FBI’s remedial measures significantly improved its Section 702 query compliance.”

Friday’s release of Judge Contreras’s opinion “confirms the significant improvement in the FBI’s Section 702 querying compliance since the implementation of our substantial reforms,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement minutes after the disclosure. “Section 702 is critical in our fight against foreign adversaries.”

“We take seriously our role in protecting national security and we take just as seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of our Section 702 authorities. Compliance is an ongoing endeavor, and we recently announced new additional accountability measures. We will continue to focus on using our Section 702 authorities to protect American lives and keeping our Homeland safe, while safeguarding civil rights and liberties.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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