April 20, 2024

The FBI conducted improper searches of US officials in a foreign surveillance database

FBI analysts conducted improper searches of a US senator and two state officials using a foreign intelligence database, according to a declassified court opinion released Friday, despite broad procedural and accountability reforms the bureau recently instituted to prevent potential abuse.

According to the April 2023 opinion of the Foreign Surveillance Court (FISC) released on Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the errors related to the failure of analysts to properly comply with new policies implemented by the FBI to question data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a legal provision that allows electronic surveillance agencies to end this year.

The opinion, written by Judge Rudolph Contreras of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – whose rulings are usually issued in secret – showed otherwise that the FBI’s compliance rate with new standards for searching the database was more than 98%.

“[T]this is reason to believe that the FBI is doing a better job of enforcing the standard of inquiry,” he said.

“While a 98% compliance rate shows that our reforms have improved significantly, it also means that there are still errors,” a senior FBI official briefed reporters on Friday. “That is why we have implemented more reforms recently, some of which correspond directly to the findings in the opinion we are releasing today,” said the official.

The senator and state officials were not named in the opinion. Although it is not standard practice for the FBI to notify those who have been wrongfully questioned, the FBI official said the senator was notified of the incident, while state officials were not.

“We have not collected any information on them,” said the official. “What was done was to run a query against our database to retrieve any information that had already been lawfully collected.”

Friday’s release is the latest in the government’s efforts to win over critics in Congress of the powers granted by Section 702. In May, ODNI also released opinion that indicated that FBI officials conducted inappropriate searches of the database during investigations into the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots and arrests following the June 2020 murder of George Floyd.

FBI Director Chris Wray faced sharp criticism last week about past abuses during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, with some Republican members accusing the FBI of abusing its authority.

Wray acknowledged past mistakes in a letter to congressional leaders Friday, noting that most of the cases occurred before reforms were introduced.

“We are committed to holding ourselves accountable and are eager to discuss with Members how these reforms can be included as part of the Section 702 reauthorization,” Wray wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by CBS News. “We also welcome discussions with Congress on additional amendments and an assessment of how these reforms can be implemented without diminishing the critical informational value of Section 702.”

“We are very open with Congress … to explain what we have done in response to the real compliance issues and concerns we have had in previous years,” the FBI official said, noting that “several” members were invited to FBI headquarters to see the effect of the reforms in practice. “We had some very substantial conversations,” he said.

Friday’s release also revealed new details about the National Security Agency’s investigative practices as well as the vetting process to determine whether non-US individuals who intend to travel or immigrate to the US have ties to international terrorism.

“This is truly unique in the overall environment of other intelligence functions in other countries,” said Rebecca “Becky” Richards, chief executive of ODNI’s office of civil liberties, privacy and transparency. “We see this as an obligation to make sure people understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, said Friday’s revelations were “disturbing.”

“The FBI continues to violate the rules put in place to protect Americans, conducting illegal searches of public officials including a United States senator, and it is past time for Congress to step in,” Toomey said in a statement. “As Congress debates reauthorizing Section 702, these comments show why fundamental reforms are urgently needed.”

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