HomeTop StoriesThe FBI conducted unauthorized searches of US officials in its foreign surveillance...

The FBI conducted unauthorized searches of US officials in its foreign surveillance database

FBI analysts conducted improper searches of a U.S. senator and two state officials using a foreign intelligence database, according to a declassified court opinion released Friday, despite extensive procedural and accountability reforms the agency recently introduced to curb potential abuses.

According to an April 2023 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinion released Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the errors relate to analysts saying the new policy the FBI has put in place for requesting data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a legal provision that allows U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance, expires at the end of this year.

The opinion, written by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Rudolph Contreras – whose rulings are usually made in secret – further showed that the FBI is more than 98% compliant with new standards for searching its database.

“[T]this is reason to believe that the FBI has done better by applying the interrogation standard,” the report said.

“While a 98% compliance rate shows that our reforms have led to substantial improvements, it also means there are still errors,” said a senior FBI official who briefed reporters on Friday. “As a result, we have recently introduced even more reforms, some of which respond directly to the findings in the advisory we are releasing today,” the official said.

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Neither the senator nor state officials were named in the opinion. While it is not customary for the FBI to notify those who were questioned in error, the FBI official said the senator had been notified of the incident, while state officials had not.

“We have not collected any information about them,” the official added. “What was done was that our databases were queried to retrieve all the information that had already been lawfully collected.”

Friday’s release is the latest in the administration’s efforts to convince critics in Congress of authorities allowed under section 702. In May, ODNI also issued a view that found FBI officials inappropriately searched the database during investigations into the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots and arrests in the wake of the June 2020 murder of George Floyd.

FBI Director Chris Wray faced sharp criticism last week over past abuses during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, with several Republican members accusing the FBI of abusing its authority.

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Wray acknowledged previous missteps in a letter to congressional leaders on Friday, noting that the most egregious cases occurred before reforms were enacted.

“We are committed to holding ourselves accountable and would like to discuss with members how to enshrine these reforms as part of the Section 702 reauthorization,” Wray wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by CBS News. “We also welcome discussing additional reforms with Congress and evaluating how to implement these reforms without compromising the vital intelligence value of Section 702.”

“We’ve been very open with Congress … explaining what we’ve done in response to the very real and concerning compliance issues we’ve had in previous years,” the FBI official said, noting that “several” members had been invited to FBI headquarters to see the effect of the reforms on the ground. “We’ve had some very substantive conversations,” he said.

Friday’s release also revealed new details about the National Security Agency’s interrogation practices, as well as the vetting process to determine whether non-U.S. individuals seeking to travel or immigrate to the U.S. have ties to international terrorism.

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“This is actually quite unique in the overall environment of other intelligence functions in other countries,” said Rebecca “Becky” Richards, head of ODNI’s Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency Office. “We see this as a duty to make sure people understand what we do and how we do it.”

Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, said Friday’s revelations were “disturbing.”

“The FBI continues to violate rules designed to protect Americans by conducting illegal searches of government officials, including a U.S. Senator, and it is long past time for Congress to intervene,” Toomey said in a statement. “As Congress debates re-authorizing Section 702, these advisories highlight the urgent need for fundamental reform.”

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