The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) routinely exploited a restricted database of Americans’ private communications to search for names of crime victims and participants in Black Lives Matter protests and the 2021 Capitol attack, documents released Friday showed.
According to declassified opinions from the secretive Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, the database contained private emails, text messages, and other communications and was used to access internal cases.
The FBI can access the National Security Agency (NSA) database only when investigating a foreign intelligence issue. Still, the newly released documents show that they did so on a regular basis for domestic investigations.
The database was accessed at least 278,000 times by the FBI throughout recent years in an unexplained manner and to run random searches in domestic drug and gang investigations, the 2020 protest over the police murder of George Floyd, and the Jan 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters.
In each of the cases, there was no foreign intelligence or domestic crime justification for the FBI accessing the database, the court said.
The documents were made public as Congress considers renewing Section 702, an enactment that lets the NSA access US-hosted internet accounts in order to spy on foreign intelligence targets.
In 2008, Congress passed Section 702 allowing the CIA and NSA only to target non-United States persons who are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.
After Congress passed Section 702, it allowed the NSA to access US-hosted accounts.
Several lawmakers suggested it needed to go through revisions to better handle the personal information of Americans.
Intelligence agencies are concerned that this might limit their operations, but Democrats and legal rights experts said the revelations show the need for reforms.
“The government has dramatically expanded its spying under Section 702 in ways never contemplated by Congress, but it’s refusing to tell Americans what it’s doing,” said Patrick Toomey of the Americans Civil Liberties Union.
A steadfast opponent of Section 702, Senator Ron Wyden claimed that the intelligence court records revealed “shocking abuses” of the law.
“If Section 702 is to be reauthorized, there must be statutory reforms to ensure that the checks and balances are in place to put an end to these abuses,” Wyden said.