FBI Catches Flak Over 278K Warrantless Searches of Americans

FBI agent using a laptop
FBI agent using a laptop | Image by Dzelat/Shutterstock

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress that the department had largely stopped using warrantless searches on American citizens, but his comments immediately prompted a social media backlash.

The FBI posted an excerpt from the hearing on X, but while the hearing was taking place several days ago, social media users took to calling out the FBI for purportedly lying.

Podcaster Adnan Belushi posted on X, “FBI GETS COMMUNITY NOTED ON X FOR LYING.”

“The FBI violated American citizens’ [Fourth Amendment] rights 278,000 times with illegal, unauthorized FISA 702 searches,” the Community Note reads.

In 2023, it was revealed the FBI was improperly searching information on Americans through Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act powers granted under section 702 of the law. The section is intended to allow the FBI to investigate foreigners located abroad. Still, an investigation by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) found the agency had violated the standard by running queries on a U.S. senator, a state senator, and a judge, The Hill reported last year.

The FBI allegedly ran 278,000 queries that scooped up data on regular Americans without a warrant in 2022. In 2021, there were over 230,000 targets, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) posted on X that the reauthorization of FISA 702 should not happen without a warrant requirement.

“FBI just got called out in a community note on X. Congress — take note. FISA 702 has been used for warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of times. Yet FBI demands 702 be reauthorized by April 19 WITHOUT a warrant requirement for searches of U.S. citizens,” Lee wrote.

Lee has introduced legislation, co-authored with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), that would establish a warrant requirement for any use of Americans’ 702 data.

“The government reports that the FBI’s rate of compliance with its own rules for backdoor searches is now 98%,” the Brennan Center for Justice wrote. “But a small percentage of a huge number is still a huge number. Two percent of 200,000 adds up to 4,000 queries every year that violate the FBI’s own low standard.”

“These disturbing new revelations show how Section 702 surveillance, a spy program the government claims is focused on foreign adversaries, is routinely used against Americans, immigrants, and people who are not accused of any wrongdoing,” Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have been accused of overreaching and invading the privacy of U.S. citizens. For example, while investigating the U.S. Capitol protests of January 6, 2021, the FBI cast a purportedly overly broad dragnet to target individuals whose phone data placed them near the building that day, regardless of whether their behavior was peaceful.

An unclassified FISA Section 702 Fact Sheet produced by the FBI indicates the department introduced reforms they claim reduced searches of Americans by 93%.

“And those — those reforms are working. The FISA Court itself most recently found 98% compliance and commented on the reforms working,” Wray told the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last month. “The most recent Justice Department report found the reforms working, 99% compliance. And so, I think legislation that ensures those reforms stay in place but also preserves the agility and the utility of the tools, what we need to be able to protect the American people.”

Per the fact sheet, the FBI claims that Section 702 has prevented Chinese hackers from attacking a transportation hub. Additionally, the FBI reportedly has identified that Russian forces were forcibly relocating children by removing Russian-occupied Ukraine children to the Russian Federation. The fact sheet also disclosed that Iranian hackers had conducted surveillance on a former U.S. department head.

In 2023, a FISA court determined the FBI had successfully implemented reforms addressing the improper use of Section 702 and was now in compliance with the statute. Congress will be tasked with determining whether to reauthorize Section 702 this month.

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