According to two declassified files released Friday, the FBI used a controversial foreign surveillance authority in 2020 to examine if demonstrators associated in the Black Lives Matter movement had ties to terrorists.
The revelation that the FBI used these authorities comes amid a contentious debate on Capitol Hill over whether to reauthorize the surveillance tool — Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — before it expires at the end of the year, and is likely to complicate the push for renewal.
According to a newly declassified memorandum order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence more than a year ago, the FBI conducted a “batch query” on 133 people “arrested in connection with civil unrest and protests” between May 30 and June 18, 2020.
These names were run through information obtained using Section 702 authorities, which allow the intelligence community to intercept electronic communications by foreign nationals residing outside the United States for national security objectives. However, the information gathered includes information about Americans on the opposite end of emails or other communications.
This year has seen a contentious debate on Capitol Hill over whether to renew Section 702, with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle citing recurrent worries about the FBI and other agencies exceeding their jurisdiction and violating Americans’ privacy rights.
The federal government has maintained that Section 702 is critical to national security, pointing out that it has been used to prevent terrorist acts and cyberattacks, among other planned incidents.
According to the memorandum, the FBI believed that the inquiries into people arrested in connection with the Black Lives Matter protests were “reasonably likely to retrieve evidence of a crime simply because they pertained to persons who had been arrested.”
“The query was run to determine whether the FBI had’any counter-terrorism derogatory information on the arrestees,’ but without ‘any specific potential connections to terrorist related activity’ known to those who conducted the queries,” according to the FISC memorandum.
When asked why this happened, a senior FBI official told reporters on a conference call Friday that the query was carried out because of a “lack of understanding on the part of the person who ran it, and that person received remedial training as well.”
The most recent revelations revealed many instances of the intelligence community misusing FISA Section 702 authorities, and were based on data from 2020 and 2021, prior to the FBI overhauling how that authority is utilised. These included FBI Director Christopher Wray accepting and executing almost a dozen compliance suggestions from an internal auditing agency.
The FBI released an audit earlier this month that revealed a decline in the abuse of FISA Section 702 authorities.
According to court documents, the FBI utilised FISA data to do a query of 19,000 donors participating in a congressional campaign in 2020. According to a senior DOJ official, the candidate in question was not elected to Congress and was competing against an incumbent. This disclosure comes months after it was discovered that Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) was investigated using Section 702.
According to court records, the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol also analysed FISA data to determine whether foreign influence was engaged in the strike.
According to Rebecca Richards, chief of the ODNI’s Civil Liberties, Privacy, and Transparency Office, classified versions of the opinions were presented to Congress last year.
In a statement Friday, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said the FISC opinion “provides further evidence that a bipartisan reauthorization of FISA Section 702 must include robust measures to ensure that FBI employees conduct rigorous and responsible searches of the Bureau’s Section 702 databases.”
House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Senate Intelligence Committee leaders did not reply to calls for comment.