The FBI improperly searched an intelligence database for information on suspects in the January 6, 2021, US Capitol riot and people arrested at 2020 protests after the police killing of George Floyd, according to a court opinion that was unsealed and released Friday.
The new details about the database misuse are likely to complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to renew a key foreign surveillance program.
The FBI searches were not “reasonably likely” to retrieve foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime, Justice Department officials who reviewed the searches concluded, according to the opinion from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees US spy agencies.
In another case, an FBI analyst conducted a “batch query” of the intelligence database for 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign based on concerns it was the target of foreign influence, the court opinion said. But the Justice Department found that only eight of the “identifiers” used in the search – typically things like a name or phone number – had sufficient ties to foreign influence activities to comply with protocols.
A senior FBI official called the errors described in the opinion “completely unacceptable,” emphasizing reforms made in the wake of their discovery.
“As a result of the audits that revealed these instances of noncompliance, the FBI changed its querying procedures to make sure these errors do not happen again,” the official said in a statement. “These steps have led to significant improvement in the way we conduct queries of lawfully obtained Section 702 information.”
The FBI has previously said that changes to the program in the past two years have curbed improper searches of the intelligence database.
The FBI was using authorities granted by a 2008 intelligence law that allows the bureau to search a vast database that gathers phone calls and text messages of foreign targets overseas from US telecommunications providers – even if it means sweeping up the communications of Americans in touch with those foreign targets. Analysts at the FBI and other agencies can then search the data gathered for leads related to foreign intelligence missions.
The program, known as Section 702, will expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews it – an uncertain prospect given concerns from some lawmakers that the US intelligence agencies could abuse the authorities.
US national security officials say the program is essential for thwarting terror plots and investigating malicious cyber activity. A significant portion of the intelligence that ends up in President Joe Biden’s daily intelligence brief comes from Section 702 authorities, according to US officials.
But civil liberties groups have complained that the program infringes on Americans’ privacy.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said Friday that congressional action was needed to curb the privacy violations of Americans revealed by the court opinion.
“If Section 702 is to be reauthorized, there must be statutory reforms to ensure that the checks and balances are in place to put an end to these abuses,” Wyden said in a statement.