The FBI made 278,000 illegal searches under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) database to target suspects of the January 6 riot, George Floyd protesters, victims of crimes, and donors of a congressional candidate, according to a recently unsealed court document.
In recent years, the FBI has come under fire from lawmakers and activists for abusing the Section 702 database to search for the communications of Americans without a warrant. The bureau has claimed it has implemented procedure changes to reduce noncompliance with the rules governing searching the database.
The FBI is only supposed to search the database if an agent is sure they will get evidence of a crime or get information relevant to foreign intelligence.
In the recently unsealed opinion, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court threatened to take action if the FBI doesn’t improve compliance. The court found almost 300,000 cases of noncompliance between 2020 and early 2021.
In the opinion, Judge Rudolph Contreas said that the court was “encouraged by the amendments to the FBI’s querying procedures.
“Nonetheless, compliance problems with the querying of Section 702 information have proven to be persistent and widespread. If they are not substantially mitigated by these recent measures, it may become necessary to consider other responses, such as substantially limiting the number of FBI personnel with access to unminimized Section 702 information,” he added.
In June 2020, at the height of the George Floyd protests and riots, the FBI queried the database for the communications of 133 protesters who were arrested. The FBI argued that it was reasonable to assume that the searches would return foreign intelligence information.
At around the same time, an analyst made 656 queries to look for derogatory information to coerce people to be informants. The court said the agency had no reason to believe that they would get the information they were looking for.
Between 2016 and 2020, the court said that agents made searches about “individuals listed in police homicide reports, including victims, next-of-kin, witnesses, and suspects.” It was a violation of the rules “because there was no reasonable basis to expect they would return foreign intelligence or evidence of crime,” The Washington Post reported.
Following the January 6 riot by former President Donald Trump supporters, an FBI employee searched the database 23,132 times on US citizens “to find evidence of possible foreign influence, although the analyst conducting the queries had no indications of foreign influence related to the query term used.” That was also a violation as there was no factual basis to expect the searches would produce evidence of crime or foreign intelligence.