A recent revelation has once again catapulted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the spotlight and for all the wrong reasons. A court opinion, made public just last week, unveils that the FBI overstepped its mandate by conducting improper intelligence queries into a U.S. senator, a state senator, and a state judge.
The Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702 empowers the federal government to keep tabs on non-U.S. citizens based outside U.S. borders via intelligence databases. If a U.S. citizen inadvertently stumbles into these investigations, the FBI then takes over, querying these individuals for potential security risks.
However, according to the presiding FISC Judge Rudolph Contreras’s April opinion, the FBI breached the established legal parameters by running queries into three individuals in 2022.
Significantly, this probe included a U.S. senator and a state senator, targeted based on the hunch of an analyst who believed these legislators were being pursued by a foreign intelligence service. Yet, the National Security Division of the Justice Department concluded that the queries did not meet the legal standards set.
The same year, an operations specialist conducted a search using the Social Security number of a state judge who had reported alleged civil rights violations to the FBI. These names have been kept confidential in the judge’s statement.
Despite these glaring errors, the judge commended the FBI for seemingly improving in applying the querying standard, praising the 2021 reforms. Still, one cannot help but question the optimism, given that this is the second time this year the FBI has been called out for misusing its surveillance powers. It is crucial to remember that unchecked power threatens the principles of freedom and privacy that lie at the heart of American values.
In the year ending November 2022, the FBI conducted 204,000 searches, a substantial drop from the previous year. These investigations included individuals involved in the Capitol protests of January 6, 2021, and those participating in the protests and riots following the tragic death of George Floyd in May 2020.
Following the release of the report, FBI Director Christopher Wray echoed the judge’s belief in the FBI’s improvements in law compliance. But should we simply take these words at face value when the evidence suggests otherwise? Isn’t it time we demand accountability?
Wray also underscored the importance of Section 702 in their fight against foreign adversaries and their responsibility towards being good custodians of the Section 702 powers. But as the expiration date for Section 702 approaches at the end of this year, it remains to be seen whether Congress will reauthorize it.
In fact, there is bipartisan opposition in Congress, as many lawmakers are reluctant to renew Section 702 without significant changes to the FBI’s use of foreign surveillance data in investigating Americans. They recognize the necessity for urgent reforms, and so should we.
In conclusion, while it is crucial to safeguard our nation from foreign threats, it is equally important to respect the constitutional rights of American citizens. An unchecked surveillance apparatus, even under the banner of national security, threatens the very foundations of our democracy. This is a delicate balance that our leaders must strive to maintain. The overreach of powers, especially on public officials, calls for immediate scrutiny and, possibly, structural reforms. It’s time to bring accountability and transparency to the fore.