An FBI analyst improperly used a high-profile warrantless surveillance program to conduct overly broad searches on two lawmakers, including a U.S. senator, last June. a recently declassified court ruling released Friday showseven as the bureau overall improved compliance with limits on the program.

In the June 2022 incident, the analyst had legitimate reason to seek information about the lawmakers, who also included a state lawmaker, in a cache of intercepts, the ruling said, because evidence suggested they were targets of a foreign intelligence service. But the questions were too broad, using only their surnames without limiting terms to remove irrelevant material, it said.

The incident is likely to fuel criticism of the program, which expires at the end of the year, while Congress debates whether or how to enact legislation to extend it. A series of earlier revelations about recent violations of the FBI’s interrogation standards — many of which occurred before a series of internal changes in 2021 and 2022 — gave fodder to its skeptics.

Known as Section 702, the law traces back to 2008 when Congress enacted a version of a warrantless surveillance program secretly created after the attacks of September 11, 2001. It allows the government to collect, from American companies like Google and without a warrant, the communications of targeted foreigners abroad to gather information about foreign governments and mass destruction terrorists.

Because that can sweep in targets’ communications with or about Americans, privacy lawmakers have long sought to impose greater limits on the program. But in previous cycles when Section 702 was about to expire, they were outvoted by hawks and centrists from both parties. This time, however, its liberal critics are joined by a faction of Republicans who have aligned themselves with former President Donald J. Trump’s hostility to the “deep state” and see the issue as an opportunity to inflict pain on the FBI.

The newly declassified opinion, issued in April by Rudolph Contreras, the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also showed that the National Security Agency this year gained expanded authority to make inquiries of Section 702 information using the IDs of foreigners who plan to visit the United States.

But the main political impact of the ruling is likely to be its discussion of the FBI, which adds to a series of revelations by the government over the past year in which it has acknowledged significant violations of the Section 702 interrogation standard — there must be specific reason to believe the search will return foreign intelligence or evidence of a crime — by the bureau.

In May, a declassified April 2022 ruling by Judge Contreras revealed that officials improperly requested information on hundreds of Americans who were being investigated in connection with the racial justice protests following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

The recently published opinion cited another investigation episode from January 6: In March 2022, an FBI agent handled an American who did not meet the standard. The agent also looked at information that came out without obtaining a court order, which is required to see any results of inquiries about Americans for purely criminal investigations. The judge wrote that the Ministry of Justice informed him of this in September.

The opinion did not release the identities of the lawmakers who were subject to overly broad searches, but the congressman was notified, officials told reporters at a background briefing on Friday.

The opinion also disclosed an October 2022 incident in which an FBI official made an inquiry using the Social Security number of a state judge who had complained to the FBI about civil rights violations allegedly committed by a municipal police chief.

The opinion did not provide further explanation for this incident. An official familiar with the matter said it had led to enforcement actions but declined to provide further details.

However, Judge Contreras offered cautious praise for steps the FBI took in 2021 and 2022 to reduce such violations. These include changing its computer system so that when agents conduct general searches of FBI databases, the Section 702 database is excluded by default, and requiring officials to specify their reasons for searching an American’s ID.

Since those broader changes went into effect, FBI requests for information about Americans in the Section 702 repository — and problematic searches — have dropped. Judge Contreras wrote that the number of inquiries about Americans is now about 160,000 to 200,000 a year, and a recent audit suggested that about 1.7 percent do not meet standards.

“Despite the reported errors, there is reason to believe that the FBI did a better job applying the questioning standard,” he wrote. “In some cases, FBI personnel apparently misapplied the questioning standard to a group of similarly situated persons, but these violations do not approach the scale of some previous ones.”

The improving numbers were “encouraging,” the judge said, warning that the assessment was incomplete. The Justice Department checks samples, not all questions, which means it remains “possible that serious violations of the questioning standard have so far gone unnoticed,” he wrote. “On balance, however, FBI application of the questioning standard appears to be improving.”

In terms of political reality, Mr. Trump’s hard-right allies in the House are unlikely to vote to extend Section 702. So the program’s future may boil down to what new limits on the program they might see as sufficient to allow Speaker Kevin McCarthy to bring a reauthorization bill to the floor — even if they will still oppose it. Because of the concessions Mr. McCarthy had to make to secure the speakership, that hard-right faction has the power to topple him, and its members are already angry that he allowed a vote to suspend the debt ceiling.

Civil liberties and privacy activists have long pushed to require the government, or at least the FBI, to obtain a court order before using Americans’ IDs to search the repository of intercepted communications. They see the current alliance with the hard-right Republicans as a unique opportunity to achieve that reform.

National security officials say such a requirement would cripple the FBI’s ability to use the program effectively for its missions and have rejected that proposal in the past. They hope that new limits, which they have imposed internally starting in 2021, will persuade Congress that any further limits should fall short of a new mandate requirement.

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *