WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI should stop using a U.S. spy database of foreigners’ emails and other communications for investigating crimes that aren’t related to national security, a group of White House intelligence advisers recommended in a report released Monday.
The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board’s findings come as the White House pushes Congress to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before its expiration at the end of this year. U.S. intelligence officials say Section 702 enables investigations of Chinese and Russian espionage, potential terrorist plots, and other threats.
But spy agencies also end up capturing the communications of U.S. citizens and businesses, and a series of intelligence mistakes at the FBI has fanned bipartisan criticism of the bureau that has shaped the debate over renewing the law. Some lawmakers in both parties and civil liberties groups have called for stronger curbs on how the FBI uses foreign surveillance to search for Americans’ data.
While the White House did not commit to accepting the recommended changes, administration officials on Monday praised the board’s work and again called on Congress to reauthorize the surveillance program. The board argues in its report that Section 702 is critical to U.S. national security and suggests that allowing the program to lapse would be an “intelligence failure” and a step backward from changes made after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The board says the FBI made “inappropriate use” at times of Section 702 information. Those include queries for a U.S. senator and state senator’s names without properly limiting the search, looking for someone believed to have been at the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and doing large queries of names of protesters following the 2020 death of George Floyd.
“Unfortunately, complacency, a lack of proper procedures, and the sheer volume of Section 702 activity led to FBI’s inappropriate use of Section 702 authorities, specifically U.S. person queries,” the board said in its report. “U.S. person queries” generally mean searches for U.S. citizens and businesses.
The board recommends the FBI no longer search the data when it is seeking evidence of a crime not related to national security. Currently, the FBI conducts fewer than two dozen such searches a year, a senior administration official told reporters Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
The White House has not decided whether it will accept the recommendation but is studying the board’s work and report, the official said.
The board’s report largely lines up with the White House’s positions on other changes being debated in Congress. The board opposed requiring the FBI to obtain a warrant before it searches Section 702 data, saying that change would be impractical. It also says the FBI needs to maintain access to foreign spy collection because unlike other intelligence agencies, it has law enforcement authorities inside the U.S. and can warn Americans that they are being targeted by foreign spies or criminals.
Already, both Republicans and Democrats have called for broader changes affecting the FBI, including a handful of lawmakers in both parties who want to require warrants for any search.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., sharply questioned Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen in June about how it searches Section 702 data and signaled he would push for new protections.
“I don’t think you’ve effectively made the case that there shouldn’t be a warrant requirement, whether or not it is constitutionally required, for a U.S. person search that is crime only,” he said.
Many in the GOP, meanwhile, are furious about the FBI’s investigations of former President Donald Trump and mistakes found by the Justice Department inspector general and other reviewers.
In a statement, the FBI said the report highlighted “how crucial” foreign intelligence was to the bureau’s mission.
“We agree that Section 702 should be reauthorized in a manner that does not diminish its effectiveness, as well as reassures the public of its importance and our ability to adhere rigorously to all relevant rules,” the bureau’s statement said.