FBI improperly searched intel database for info on US senator, state senator and judge: Court

None one was "surveilled" and no information was specifically collected.

July 21, 2023, 3:09 PM

FBI officials improperly searched a foreign intelligence database for information on a U.S. Senator, a state senator and a state judge, according to an unsealed court opinion released Friday.

The improper queries of the surveillance collection tool, which allegedly occurred last year -- could further roil an ongoing push by the Biden Administration to have the Section 702 program reauthorized before it is set to expire by the end of this year.

The disclosures come even as the FBI said it has reported significant improvements in oversight to help curb further abuse of what intelligence officials argue is an essential tool to protect U.S. national security.

The 702 database, which was propped up in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, contains a vast collection of communications collected from foreign targets overseas which in turn includes messages collected from Americans who may be in touch with those targets.

In the event the FBI wants to search the database for information on Americans or U.S. businesses, the analyst or agent must certify they have reason to believe they will gather foreign intelligence or evidence of a crime as a result -- which allows them to bypass what would be the usual step of securing a search warrant signed off by a federal judge.

According to the opinion from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, an analyst with the FBI conducted four searches of the intelligence database using the last names of a U.S. Senator and state senator in June of 2022 -- both of whom were not named in the filing.

PHOTO: The Federal Bureau of Investigation seal is displayed outside the FBI headquarters, Feb. 2, 2018, in Washington.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation seal is displayed outside the FBI headquarters, Feb. 2, 2018, in Washington.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The analyst "had information that a specific foreign intelligence service was targeting" both legislators, but a review of the search by the Justice Department's National Security Division determined that the search still didn't meet the proper standards because they weren't sufficiently tailored.

In a separate instance last October, an FBI specialist ran a search of the 702 database using the social security number of a state judge who "had complained to FBI about alleged civil rights violations perpetrated by a municipal chief of police," the filing says, that also didn't meet sufficient standards.

The U.S. senator whose information was improperly searched has been notified, but the state senator and the state judge have not, according to officials who briefed reporters on the opinion Friday. The officials also said that even though the searches were wrongfully conducted, none of the individuals were "surveilled" and no information was specifically collected about the lawmakers or the judge.

"This is a case where a control we have put in place to prevent this type of thing just didn't work because people didn't comply with the policy," an official said Friday. The official said this is why they need better training and accountability.

Just last month, the FISC court released an opinion that revealed FBI analysts misused the database by searching for information on suspects in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and people arrested at 2020 protests following the police killing of George Floyd. The disclosures alarmed lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum, who have pressed for more information on steps that the administration is putting into place to protect Americans' civil liberties.

Despite the reported errors by the FBI in the opinion released Friday, the surveillance court also found "there is reason to believe that the FBI has been doing a better job" in applying proper standards to the search query system, the filing states. The court calculated that the FBI's rate of non-compliant searches has dropped to as low as 1.8% recently.

"The 2023 FISC Opinion confirms the significant improvement in the FBI's Section 702 querying compliance since the implementation of our substantial reforms," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement on the release of the FISC opinion. "We take seriously our role in protecting national security and we take just as seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of our Section 702 authorities."

Officials said they have also recently implemented new measures to enhance consequences for analysts who may have repeat instances of conducting improper searches in addition to what they describe as "rare" instances where they have found intentional misconduct.

"Compliance is an ongoing endeavor, and we recently announced new additional accountability measures," Wray said. "We will continue to focus on using our Section 702 authorities to protect American lives and keeping our Homeland safe, while safeguarding civil rights and liberties."