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FBI Illegally Exploited Surveillance Powers to Spy on Americans Over 278,000 Times in 2021, Court Filing Reveals

Published: May 23, 2023
A seal reading "Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation" is displayed on the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building in Washington, DC, on Aug. 9, 2022. (Image: STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

According to a recently unsealed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court filing, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) misused warrantless search powers against American citizens over 278,000 times over the course of a 12-month period ending in November, 2021.

The FBI misused powers granted to them by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to spy on American citizens which was originally intended to surveil non-U.S. citizens located abroad to acquire foreign intelligence information.

Instead, the filing revealed that the FBI used these powers to surveil Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors, January 6th rioters and donors to a failed congressional candidate. 

The heavily redacted filing, which sprawls over some 127 pages, was released on May 19, however was originally filed in April 2022. 

Officials with the FBI are not shying away from their culpability, with one senior FBI official telling Fox News, “As Director Wray has made clear, the errors described in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s opinion are completely unacceptable. 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. These steps led to a significant improvement in the way we conduct queries of lawfully obtained Section 702 information.” 

Section 702 was first adopted in 2008 and was renewed for six years in 2018 by former president Donald Trump who at first opposed the renewal of the powers but subsequently backtracked. 

According to the New York Times, “In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, there were more than 230,000 foreign targets of Section 702 warrantless surveillance,” indicating the powers may have been used against Americans more often than its intended purpose, to surveil foreigners located outside the U.S..


Congressional campaign donors targeted

In addition to illegally surveilling BLM rioters and Americans involved in the Jan. 6th riots, some 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign were targeted as well, however it’s unclear exactly which campaign was targeted. The filing only states that “over 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign,” were targeted. 

“The analyst who ran the query advised that the campaign was a target of foreign influence, but NSD [National Security Division] determined that only eight identifiers used in the query had sufficient ties to foreign influence activities to comply with the querying standard,” the filing says.

Also targeted were participants in civil unrest following the death of George Floyd. 

The filing says that a batch of inquiries were made in June 2020, “using identifiers of 133 individuals arrested in connection with civil unrest and protests between approximately May 30 and June 18, 2020.”

“The query was run to determine whether the FBI had ‘any counter-terrorism derogatory information on the arrestees,’ but without ‘any specific potential connections to terrorist related activity’ known to those who conducted the queries,” the filing stated.

According to the filing, one FBI employee ran more than 23,000 queries “to find possible foreign influence, although the analyst conducting the queries had no indications of foreign influence related to the query term used.”

So far, it does not appear as though the FBI will face any consequences for its illegal use of  Section 702 and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are arguing for the powers to be renewed.


Section 702 to sunset Dec. 31

Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers are arguing for the surveillance law to be renewed, however with reforms and more congressional oversight. 

Unsurprisingly, America’s intelligence apparatus is arguing for its renewal.

In January this year, Paul Nakasone, the commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency (NSA) urged Congress to renew the law, telling the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s public forum on Section 702, “Section 702 cannot be used to target Americans anywhere in the world or any person inside the United States regardless of nationality. No exceptions.”

He continued, “Under Section 702, both national security and civil liberties and privacy are preserved and protected. It is an ‘and’ and not an ‘or’ that connects these two important goals. Neither is compromised for the other. 702 authorities provided exquisite foreign intelligence that is focused on non-US persons outside the United States and specific invaluable insights that protect our nation, intelligence that cannot be obtained through other means.”

This, according to the filing, has been revealed to be untrue. 

In late February this year, the Biden administration said that the reauthorization of Section 702 is a “top priority,” according to a statement by National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan. 

“The Biden-Harris Administration strongly supports the reauthorization by Congress of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a vital intelligence collection authority, which the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence conveyed today in a joint letter to congressional leadership,” the statement reads.

The Biden administration believes that the grossly misused law is a “cornerstone of U.S. national security” and an “invaluable tool that continues to protect Americans every day” and is “crucial to ensuring that U.S. defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies can respond to threats from the People’s Republic of China, Russia, nefarious cyber actors, terrorists, and those who seek to harm our critical infrastructure.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told the Washington Post, “Yet again, the public is learning about shocking abuses of FISA Section 702, in particular the FBI’s warrantless searches through 702 data for information on Americans,” adding that, “These abuses have been going on for years and despite recent changes in FBI practices, these systematic violations of Americans’ privacy require congressional action. 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.”