FBI Improperly Used Surveillance Program to Spy on Jan. 6 Suspects

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The FBI abused its surveillance powers while spying on suspects in the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol and Black Lives Matter protesters, a federal court said in a newly unsealed ruling.

FBI agents violated standards the agency developed for the Section 702 program, which enables spying on Americans and others, more than 278,000 times, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said in the 2022 ruling, which was made public for the first time on May 19.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act enables agencies like the FBI to collect information like emails without warrants from foreigners, even if they’re in the United States, and bars intentionally targeting Americans.

The FBI developed its own standard for Section 702 searches, stating that queries “must be reasonably likely to retrieve foreign intelligence information, as defined by FISA, or evidence of a crime, unless otherwise specifically excepted.”

But FBI agents have been violating the standard, the court has found, with the newest ruling disclosing hundreds of thousands of abusive searches in addition to those already known.

The abusive searches include multiple improper queries targeting suspected or confirmed Jan. 6 suspects.

In one instance, an analyst searched for information on 13 people suspected of being involved in the Capitol breach. The analyst “said she ran the queries to determine whether these individuals had foreign ties,” but the Department of Justice’s National Security Division (NSD) “concluded the queries were not reasonably likely to retrieve foreign intelligence information or evidence of crime,” the newly unsealed ruling states.

In another case, widespread searches that in total consisted of more than 23,000 separate queries looked for information on presumed Americans to see whether the people were “being used by a group” involved in the breach.

“The queries were run against unminimized Section 702 information to find evidence of possible foreign influence, although the analyst conducting the queries had no indications of foreign influence related to the query terms used,” the court said. “NSD assessed there was no specific factual basis to believe the queries were reasonably likely to retrieve foreign intelligence information or evidence of crime from Section 702 information.”

By Zachary Stieber

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