FBI wrongly searched for US senator and state senator in Section 702 spy data, court hears

WASHINGTON (AP) — FBI employees improperly searched foreign surveillance data for the last names of a U.S. senator and a state senator, according to a court notice released Friday. The disclosure could further complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to renew a major spy program that already faces bipartisan opposition in Congress.

Another FBI employee falsely requested the Social Security number of a state judge who alleged civil rights violations by a city police chief, according to the opinion of the Chief Judge of the Court of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance.

News of the latest violations comes as the Biden administration faces an uphill battle to persuade Congress to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows spy agencies to harvest snippets of emails and other communications.

Already this year, US spy agents revealed that the FBI improperly searched Section 702 databases for information related to the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol and the 2020 protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

US officials say Section 702 enables their priority work on China, Russia and threats such as terrorism and cybersecurity. But many Democratic and Republican lawmakers say they won’t vote to renew Section 702 when it expires at the end of this year without major changes targeting how the FBI uses foreign surveillance data to investigate Americans.

Democrats who have long called for new limits on the FBI’s access to surveillance have been increasingly joined by Republicans angry at the bureau’s investigations into former President Donald Trump as well as errors and omissions during the probe into Russian ties to his 2016 campaign.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement that reforms at the bureau have led to “significant improvement” and fewer incidents of intelligence non-compliance. He then sent a letter to congressional leaders emphasizing the importance of the Section 702 program.

“We take our role in protecting national security seriously, and we take our responsibility to be good stewards of our Section 702 authorities seriously,” Wray said in the statement. “We will continue to focus on using our Section 702 authorities to protect American lives and keep our homeland safe, while protecting civil rights and liberties.”

Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement that the latest errors show it is “overdue for Congress to intervene.”

“As Congress debates the reauthorization of Section 702, these opinions show why it cannot happen without fundamental reforms,” he said.

The supervisory court notice released on Friday did not reveal the names, states or party affiliations of those whose names were sought. He said the searches of the state senator and the U.S. senator took place in June 2022. According to the court’s opinion, the analyst who conducted the searches had information that a foreign spy service was targeting lawmakers. But the Justice Department’s National Security Division reviewed the searches and found they fell short of FBI standards for limiting the amount of information recovered, the opinion said.

The state judge’s social security number was sought in October. It was later determined that the analyst did not have enough evidence to conduct the search and had not authorized the search with superiors as required for politically sensitive research, according to a senior FBI official who briefed reporters Friday on condition of anonymity under ground rules established by the agency.

The unnamed U.S. senator was told about the search, but not the state senator and judge, the FBI official said.

The FBI obtains some of the foreign surveillance data collected primarily by the National Security Agency, US officials said. Unlike the NSA and CIA, which pursue intelligence targets abroad, the FBI is responsible for investigating threats affecting the United States such as cyberattacks or attempts to influence or interfere in US elections.

There are strict rules governing when analysts can search for US citizens or companies in surveillance data. Facing pressure from the supervisory court and Congress, the FBI has in recent years changed its search tools, stepped up training for analysts working with foreign data, and required new approvals from superiors for larger searches or sensitive searches like the names of public officials.

The FBI also announced new disciplinary action last month. Any employee accused of negligence would immediately lose access to surveillance data until they complete training and meet with a bureau attorney. The actions revealed on Friday predate the new disciplinary policy.

Judge Rudolph Contreras’ opinion, which was completed in April 2023 and released Friday with redactions, says “there is reason to believe the FBI has done a better job in applying the standard of interrogation.” Of nearly 80,000 searches audited over a 16-month period ending in December 2022, 1.8% were found not to meet internal standards, the court said.

The total number of searches by Americans also appears to have declined. Over a one-year period ending in March, the FBI conducted approximately 180,000 searches of US citizens and other US entities, the court heard.

That’s well below the roughly 2 million searches reported just between December 2020 and February 2021, which Contreras wrote “should indicate less intrusion into the private communications of American persons.”

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