DOJ sought to surveil several thousand U.S. citizens in 2012

Josh Peterson | Tech Editor

The Justice Department sought the authority to spy on several thousand “United States persons” in 2012, according to a letter the department recently sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The letter, which was dispatched on April 30, said the FBI made 15,229 requests in 2012 for electronic surveillance using the federal government’s National Security Letter authorities. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, commonly called the “FISA court,” handled the applications.

“These sought information pertaining to 6,233 different United States persons,” wrote Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik in the letter.

The report does not specify how many of these National Security Letter requests were granted. The requests differ from typical subpoenas, because they seek only non-content information (such as phone numbers, instead of the content of phone conversations) and do not require approval from the judicial branch. (RELATED: Read the report)

It does, however, reveal that the FISA court granted 1,788 electronic surveillance requests by the Justice Department in 2012.

The FISA court also granted 212 requests by the federal government for access to “certain business records (including the production of tangible things) for foreign intelligence purposes.”

“The FISC did not deny any of these applications in whole or in part,” although modifications were made to 40 electronic surveillance requests and 200 business access requests.

The FISA Court was established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 as a secret venue for the federal government to request surveillance authority against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the U.S.

The report, which is an annual update to Congress mandated by federal law, makes no mention of the number of search warrants the Justice Department sought for “foreign intelligence purposes.”

It only specifies that the agency sought authority to conduct electronic surveillance, access to business records, and subpoena powers via FBI National Security Letters.

In the final days of December 2012, President Barack Obama signed the renewal of the federal government’s warrantless surveillance program under FISA, following a contentious battle in the Senate for the program’s reauthorization.

The Justice Department is currently under fire from a May 11 report by The Associated Press that accuses the DOJ of engaging in an unprecedented infringement of press freedom in the U.S.

The AP reported that the DOJ secretly subpoenaed two months of AP journalists’ phone records, affecting 20 phone lines and at least 100 journalists, by the AP’s estimate.

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, said that the organization believes the probe was conducted to investigate the source of a May 2012 AP story about a foiled terrorist plot against the U.S.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul criticized the DOJ on Tuesday for not seeking a warrant to obtain the records.

Attorney General Eric Holder told NPR on Tuesday that he was “not sure” how many times he’s signed off on the secret seizure of reporters’ records.

Holder, who announced on Tuesday that he had recused himself from the investigation, told members of Congress Wednesday that he voluntarily turned over his phone records in the DOJ’s AP probe.

He recused himself from the investigation and was questioned by the FBI, he told members of Congress, because he was one of the persons in possession of leaked information.

(h/t Secrecy News / Wired)

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