FBI Abused Foreign Surveillance Tool To Spy on Political Protesters, Donors

By Hudson Crozier

What’s new: In a newly released court document from April 2022, a federal judge found that the FBI improperly used a digital database to look up information on individuals over 278,000 times between 2020 and early 2021. Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 9/11-era protocol, agents are allowed to search the database if they have reason to believe they will find evidence of foreign influence or crimes, but they repeatedly failed to meet that threshold. The FBI now claims that staff misunderstood the requirements at the time and that it has since fixed the problem.

What were they looking for? The government searched for the personal data and communications of Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020 and January 6 protesters in 2021, baselessly claiming that it might find evidence of foreign influence. Based on the same reasoning, it also looked up information on donors for a congressional candidate, whose name isn’t revealed in the court document. Its other searches had to do with seemingly unrelated criminal cases.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has urged Congress to vote to renew Section 702 before it expires at the end of the year, saying that its intelligence-gathering powers are vital against China and other threats. But in light of these abuses, Republicans and Democrats say that there must be reforms to the system first. This controversy adds to recent scrutiny of the FBI from lawmakers and presidential candidates as part of an ongoing push to rein in the federal bureaucracy.

  • Watching 2024: Former President Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy have all called for serious reform of the FBI.

A history of partisan abuse: In 2016, the agency used false information to obtain FISA warrants on former President Donald Trump’s campaign adviser to wiretap his phone. In this case, the FBI made over 23,000 separate searches for people suspected to be involved in the January 6 riot, while there were only 133 searches for people involved with Black Lives Matter protests.

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