The secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) ruled last year that some FBI surveillance violated the targets’ constitutional rights, the intelligence community revealed Tuesday.
The ruling, a rare loss for the government on surveillance matters, found that the FBI may have violated the law, as well as constitutional protections against unreasonable searches, as it searched through databases connected to its a warrantless communications surveillance program.
Judge James Boasberg, who sits on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, found last year that the FBI’s efforts to query the sensitive databases and purge unnecessary results were “inconsistent with statutory minimization requirements and the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”
The ruling identified tens of thousands of improper FBI searches of intelligence databases in 2017 and 2018, according to the ruling, which found these searches may have been used to vet personnel and cooperating sources.
It also found that the FBI was not properly identifying and documenting which searches were connected to people in the U.S.
Federal law allows use of the database only to search for evidence of crimes or for foreign intelligence data, and requires an account of how many searches pertain to U.S. persons.
The ruling found improper use of the database by individuals, including at least one FBI contractor who searched an intelligence database for information on himself, relatives and other personnel.
Boasberg, who was appointed to the bench by former President Obama, wrote that the Trump administration failed to persuasively argue that the FBI would not be able to properly tackle national security threats if the program was altered to better protect citizen privacy.
The FISC issued the ruling, released on Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in October 2018. The government appealed the court’s finding to the FISA Court of Review, which sided with the lower court.
Ultimately, the FBI agreed to amend the querying process, requiring the agency to justify in writing why it is looking into any person in the U.S.
For years, civil liberties advocates have argued that the law at the center of the dispute – Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — violates constitutional rights as it allows the government to collect data on Americans without a warrant.
Congress last year reauthorized Section 702 with few alterations after a bitter battle between privacy activists and security hawks in both chambers.
“Last year, when Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA, it accepted the FBI’s outright refusal to account for all its warrantless backdoor searches of Americans,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said on Tuesday. “Today’s release demonstrates how baseless the FBI’s position was and highlights Congress’ constitutional obligation to act independently and strengthen the checks and balances on government surveillance.”
“The information released today also reveals serious abuses in the FBI’s backdoor searches, underscoring the need for the government to seek a warrant before searching through mountains of private data on Americans,” Wyden said. “Finally, I am concerned that the government has redacted information in these releases that the public deserves to know.”
The court documents released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Tuesday are partially redacted.
Updated at 4:50 p.m.