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FBI FISA queries into US citizens plummet by 95%, new data shows

NewsFBI FISA queries into US citizens plummet by 95%, new data shows

House Appropriations Committee Hears Testimony

The House Appropriations Committee have heard a testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray (Image: Getty)

The number of queries made by the FBI into US citizens under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) declined significantly between 2021 and 2022.

The figures were announced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) as it released its annual transparency report on the intelligence community’s use of national security surveillance authorities on Friday.

The US government is authorised to carry out targeted surveillance of non-US persons located abroad to acquire foreign intelligence information under section 702 of FISA.

When the government flags US citizens as part of these investigations, the process of querying them for potential security reasons are taken over by the FBI.

The report says: “There was a significant decline in total US person queries in the period December 2021-November 2022”. It attributes this to a “number of changes FBI made to its systems, processes, and training relating to US persons queries”.

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House Appropriations Committee Hears Testimony

US officials testimonies before Congress show that up to 30% of queries were done so “in error” (Image: Getty)

Between December 2021 and November 2022, the 204,000 queries is a 95% fall from the previous year’s reporting period.

Personal identifiers were used during the December 2020 to November 2021 reporting period by the FBI, querying US citizens almost 3.4 million times.

According to testimonies by US officials before Congress earlier this week, up to 30% of the queries conducted were done so “in error”.

The FBI said in a statement to Fox News: “As Director (Christopher) Wray announced during Congressional testimony on March 8, 2023, and what today’s transparency report confirms, in 2022 there was a 93.99% year-over-year drop from the 2021, and an 84.59% drop from 2020.

“This drop in queries demonstrates that the reforms Director Wray established had a substantial effect on the FBI’s querying practices and our continued surgical use of this indispensable tool to protect Americans from foreign threats.”

A query is defined as a “basic analytic step foundational to efficiently and effectively reviewing data lawfully collected and already in the government’s possession.”

Authorised personnel conduct queries to “more efficiently identify foreign intelligence information and, in the FBI’s case, evidence of a crime”.

They can assist in finding “connections between individuals and entities” and identify threats to the US or national security interests abroad.

House Appropriations Committee Hears Testimony

Queries based on evidence of a crime “increased slightly” (Image: Getty)

Queries also assist in identifying potential victims of national security threat activity such as those vulnerable to cyberattacks on US infrastructure by foreign actors.

The report states: “Queries that return no results may be just as useful as those that do return results because they may sometimes indicate that a person or matter which was believed to be of concern is, in fact, not.”

The FBI’s queries performed based on evidence of a crime “increased slightly” between December 2021 and November 2022.

However, the amount of times the FBI “failed to obtain a required court order prior to reviewing the results of certain evidence of a crime-only queries declined”.

The FBI also opened “zero” investigations into US citizens not considered a threat to national security.

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Rep. Darin LaHood...

Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. believed he was the mystery lawmaker illegally queried by the FBI (Image: Getty)

ODNI declassified a 2021 report that listed FISA abuses in December 2022.

It confirmed that under Section 702, the FBI had examined data for an anonymous Congress member and local political groups to verify if they had connections to foreign intelligence.

Republican Congressman, representative Darin LaHood, of Illinois, said during a House Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this year that he thought he was the mystery politician unlawfully queried by the FBI.

FISA Section 702 is set to discontinue on December 31, with both Republican and Democrats planning reforms to reauthorise the section, but with more opportunity for Congress to hold it to account.

Leader of the bipartisan FISA 702 Working Group, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, and LaHood, said that “while there was a sharp decline in US person queries from December 2021 to November 2022, it is incumbent upon Congress, not the Executive Branch, to codify reforms to FISA Section 702″.

They said: “Without additional safeguards, a clean reauthorization of 702 is a non-starter.

“The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence launched a bipartisan working group to perform a thorough and comprehensive review of FISA and confront the missteps and inappropriate actions taken by the FBI.”

They added: “We need to pass substantive and meaningful reforms to help deter abusive behavior by the FBI in the FISA process.”

Turner and LaHood both endorsed FISA Section 702, saying it is an “irreplaceable national security tool”, but also insisted Congress “must protect the American people’s privacy and civil liberties”.

Jim Jordan, the Republican representative for Ohio, from the House Judiciary Committee, suggested the removal of the FBI “altogether” from being able to query US citizens during a FISA-focused hearing this week.

Following a 2019 review from Justice Department Inspector Michael Horowitz, FISA reform became a main concern on both sides of the aisle.

Major inaccuracies were found in the review, and exceptions in a FISA warrant application by the FBI to monitor Carter Page, who was a campaign adviser to Donald Trump in 2016, and has recommended considerable amendments to FISA Section 702 since.

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