Senior FBI Official Reportedly Instructed Agents To Utilize Warrantless Wiretap Tool Inside America

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A senior official in the FBI reportedly advised agents to use its warrantless surveillance authorities against targets on U.S. soil, according to an internal email obtained by WIRED.

In April, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate urged subordinates to find ways to use the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s (FISA) Section 702 authority, which allows for warrantless surveillance under certain conditions, against “U.S. persons,” according to WIRED, which obtained the internal email. While the FBI and other proponents of Section 702 have described the law as an essential tool for national security, the bureau controversially used the espionage tool to target former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, a sitting member of Congress and thousands of Americans.

“To continue to demonstrate why tools like this are essential to our mission, we need to use them, while also holding ourselves accountable for doing so properly and in compliance with legal requirements,” Abbate wrote in the email, according to WIRED. “I urge everyone to continue to look for ways to appropriately use U.S. person queries to advance the mission, with the added confidence that this new pre-approval requirement will help ensure that those queries are fully compliant with the law.” (RELATED: ‘Scare Tactics’: FBI Warrantless Surveillance Renewal Was Unnecessary For Stopping Terrorism, Experts Say)

Section 702 allows the FBI to request that American companies allow the bureau to access various communications without a search warrant, according to WIRED. However, the law requires that at least one of the targets is a foreigner who is reasonably thought to be somewhere other than the U.S.

“Today’s reporting in Wired magazine is a complete misrepresentation of the FBI Deputy Director’s email to the FBI workforce.  Their allegation that the FBI instructed its employees to violate the law or FBI policies is categorically false and insulting,” a spokesperson for the FBI told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “The email emphasized Congress’ recognition of the vital importance of FISA Section 702 to protect the American people and was sent to ensure that FBI personnel were immediately aware of, and in compliance with, the privacy enhancing changes the law has put in place.”

In the 2016 election, the FBI spied on the Trump campaign using FISA, basing its application on information contained in the since-debunked Steele Dossier. After its role in the 2016 elections and subsequent allegations of abuse of the tool, many lawmakers opposed reauthorizing Section 702 when the time came to do so earlier this spring, but Congress ultimately reauthorized the program on April 20, the same day that Abbate sent the email in question.

The FBI first began disclosing statistics about its use of the surveillance tool in 2021, a year in which the bureau claims to have searched U.S. phone numbers or email accounts 2.9 million times, according to WIRED. Since 2021, the FBI has changed how it counts Section 702 searches, and it now discloses the total number of unique searches; for example, five distinct searches of the same phone number would count only as one search.

Under those new counting guidelines, the FBI conducted about 119,000 such searches in 2022, and about 57,000 in 2023, according to WIRED. The Department of Justice (DOJ) found in 2023 that the FBI complies with the law about 98% of the time that the bureau uses it.

Several reforms of the FISA statute were enacted as part of the deal to reauthorize the spying tool, and proponents of reauthorization have said that these conditions would keep the FBI from abusing the program while ensuring that the bureau could still monitor genuine security threats. Numerous civil liberties organizations strongly opposed reauthorizing the program, according to WIRED.

“The deputy director’s email seems to show that the FBI is actively pushing for more surveillance of Americans, not out of necessity but as a default,” Democratic California Rep. Zoe Lofgren told WIRED. “This directly contradicts earlier assertions from the FBI during the debate over Section 702’s reauthorization.”

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