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A recently unclassified court opinion has shed light on the FBI’s misuse of controversial surveillance powers, revealing that they abused the spy law more than 278,000 times between 2020 and early 2021. These violations primarily targeted George Floyd protesters, individuals involved in the January 6 Capitol riot, and donors to a congressional campaign, as reported by The Register.
The court ruling, issued by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, details multiple violations of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits warrantless surveillance. The court determined that the FBI participated in a “persistent and widespread” pattern of abuse, failing to establish the necessity to access US persons’ communications using a statute designed for foreign targets on several occasions.
Section 702 is intended to allow the federal government to monitor foreign nationals’ communications outside the United States in order to prevent criminal and terrorist activity. However, it may mistakenly collect communications from US citizens, such as phone conversations, messages, and emails, which are then kept in massive databases. Without a warrant, the FBI, CIA, and NSA can scan these databases, extending their monitoring reach several layers deep into the communications network.
Although the law expressly bans the monitoring of American individuals, the government has a history of exploiting this data without legal authority to monitor activists, journalists, and others. These warrantless searches have resulted in charges in a number of situations.
Unless Congress renews it, the monitoring power will expire at the end of the year. The newly declassified court records provide ammo for Section 702 opponents who claim that the government habitually abuses these unlawful searches.
“These abuses have been going on for years and…require congressional action,” said US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). If Section 702 is to be reauthorized, statutory amendments must be enacted to guarantee that the necessary checks and balances are in place to put a stop to these abuses.”
The court opinion provides detailed accounts of FBI queries conducted on thousands of individuals during the specified period. It reveals that these queries included 133 people arrested during the George Floyd protests and over 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign. In both cases, the FBI’s searches exceeded the legal boundaries, with insufficient evidence of foreign influence to justify the intrusion into communications.
Similar violations occurred in searches related to the Capitol breach on January 6, domestic drug and gang investigations, and domestic terrorism probes. The court report indicates that more than 23,000 queries were run on individuals suspected of involvement in storming the Capitol.
While the FBI claims to have implemented changes to prevent Section 702 abuse, critics argue that true reform will only occur through congressional action and the enactment of FISA reforms. Without a comprehensive overhaul of Section 702 and related surveillance powers, the law should not be extended beyond this year, warns Jake Laperruque, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Security and Surveillance Project.
The revelations in the court opinion have raised serious concerns among members of Congress, prompting calls for stronger safeguards to protect Americans’ privacy rights and curb government overreach.