FBI’s Unapproved Snooping on US Lawmakers Fuels Debate Over Surveillance Powers

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing back against the renewal of a controversial law authorizing a tool used by US spy agencies

A newly declassified court document has revealed the FBI improperly searched a surveillance database seeking information about a US senator, a state senator, and a state judge. The disclosure comes during a heated Congressional debate over intelligence agencies’ ability to conduct warrantless spying on American citizens and their communications.

Released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday, the revelations were included in an order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued in April. The document shows that in June 2022, an FBI analyst conducted unapproved searches for information on a US senator as well as a state senator, using a database created by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

Section 702 authorizes a tool used by US spy agencies to conduct warrantless surveillance on foreign targets and any Americans with whom they may be interacting. The expiration date on the law is coming up in December, as growing animosity over the spy bureaucracies’ abuse of power continues to prompt resistance from GOP lawmakers.

A senior FBI official told Politico that the anonymous FBI analyst was not authorized to conduct searches using "sensitive query terms," including the names of people running for office or public officials. Additionally, the report said the searches did not meet the threshold of being "reasonably likely to retrieve" evidence of a crime or foreign intelligence information.

It was claimed that the analyst had evidence that these officials were being targeted by a foreign spy service. However, the aforementioned FBI official admitted to Politico that if the analyst had sought the required pre-approval for their queries, "they would not have been approved."

Last October, the FBI ran another search using a state judge’s social security number. According to the FISA court document, the judge "had complained to [the] FBI about alleged civil rights violations perpetrated by a municipal chief of police." 

The names of the affected lawmakers have not been disclosed, and it remains unclear if the US senator is still in office, with the bureau only acknowledging that he was a sitting senator as of last summer.

Congressional leaders have warned the White House that Section 702 will not be renewed absent significant changes. For instance, such reforms would prohibit federal agents from obtaining phone, email, and other electronic communications records of Americans interfacing with targeted foreign individuals.

The White House is busy attempting to sway GOP members, spinning the renewal of Section 702 as imperative to counter threats overseas from Russia and especially China. Although, the New York Times reported earlier this month that Republicans in the opposition camp will probably not be receptive.

The conservatives have "seized on official determinations that federal agents botched a wiretap on a Trump campaign adviser and more recent disclosures that FBI analysts improperly used Section 702 to search for information about hundreds of Americans who came under scrutiny in connection with the Jan. 6 attack and the Black Lives Matter protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer."

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) declared "You couldn’t waterboard me into voting to reauthorize 702," going on to cite instances of federal spy powers being used to infringe on the rights of political dissidents on both the left and right.

"These 702 authorities were abused against people in Washington on January 6 and they were abused against people who were affiliated with the BLM movement, and I’m equally aggrieved by both of those things," Gaetz added.

In 2018, the program’s reauthorization received Gaetz’s support. Despite ostensible reforms in the past, the 2018 renewal only enhanced the ability of intelligence agencies to subject Americans to their massive surveillance system.

"The bill that was most recently passed, S. 139, endorses nearly all warrantless searches of databases containing Americans’ communications collected under Section 702. It allows for the restarting of ‘about’ collection, an invasive type of surveillance that the [National Security Agency] ended in 2017 after being criticized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for privacy violations," the Electronic Frontier Foundation has explained.

Connor Freeman is the assistant editor and a writer at the Libertarian Institute, primarily covering foreign policy. He is a co-host on the Conflicts of Interest podcast. His writing has been featured in media outlets such as Antiwar.com, Counterpunch, and the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. He has also appeared on Liberty Weekly, Around the Empire, and Parallax Views. You can follow him on Twitter@FreemansMind96.