Surprise! Court Reveals the FBI's Abuse of FISA

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

The news just keeps getting worse for the FBI. As the Biden administration is trying to sell Congress on renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a FISA court opinion released on Friday reveals that the FBI abused the act to spy on state and federal legislators — not to mention participants in the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

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“FBI employees wrongly searched foreign surveillance data for the last names of a U.S. senator and a state senator, according to a court opinion released Friday,” reports the Associated Press.

“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 by the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” the report continues.

Section 702 of FISA gives the federal government some latitude when it comes to surveillance, and the Department of Justice insists that it’s necessary to allow the U.S. to spy on America’s enemies. But legislators from both parties have expressed concern over whether Section 702 gives the government too much power to spy on Americans.

“Section 702 permits the Attorney General and the DNI to jointly authorize, through certifications, the targeting of (i) non-U.S. persons (ii) who are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States (iii) to acquire foreign intelligence information,” explains the court’s opinion, which adds that “the FISC reviews the certifications and accompanying documents to ensure that they meet all the requirements of Section 702 and are consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

Related: Christopher Wray Is Still Trump’s Biggest Failure

An AP report from April demonstrates how both Democrats and Republicans have their qualms about renewing Section 702:

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Key lawmakers say they won’t vote to renew the programs under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that expire at the end of this year without major changes targeting the FBI. Many blame problems with how the FBI’s special agents search for U.S. citizens using Section 702 — along with publicly revealed mistakes in other intelligence investigations by the bureau.

Among the revelations since the law was last renewed in 2018: The bureau misled surveillance court judges in seeking to wiretap a 2016 campaign aide for former President Donald Trump, and agents didn’t follow guidelines in searching Section 702 databases for the names of a congressman on the House Intelligence Committee, a local political party, and people of Middle Eastern descent.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement that the FBI is reforming its practices. ““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,” according to the statement. “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 surveillance court opinion released Friday didn’t disclose the names, states or party affiliations of the people whose names were searched,” the AP notes. “It said the searches of the state senator and U.S. senator occurred in June 2022. According to the court opinion, the analyst who did the searches had information that a foreign spy service was targeting the lawmakers.”

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The court also points out that the Department of Justice reviewed the FBI’s searches and found that they didn’t meet the proper standards for the surveillance of Americans. The opinion, which Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote in April but the court released on Friday with redactions, points out that the feds have searched for information on fewer American citizens in recent years than in prior periods.

Even if the FBI and other spy agencies are cutting back on their searches of American citizens, it’s cold comfort when we consider the corruption that is deeply embedded in the Department of Justice. Here’s hoping that Congress will come to its senses and refuse to renew Section 702 — or at least demand major reforms before renewing it.

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