The White House’s Intelligence Advisory Board has urged Congress to tighten restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s use of a foreign surveillance tool–Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)–which was originally designed to track foreign spies and potential terrorists.
The Advisory Board argues the FBI has exploited Section 702 to intrude into American citizens’ electronic communications, a step beyond its intended use. Section 702 has increasingly become a gateway for law enforcement agencies to monitor Americans’ phone records, emails, and other electronic communications without a warrant.
The White House report argues, “FBI’s use of Section 702 should be limited to foreign intelligence purposes only and FBI personnel should receive additional training on what foreign intelligence entails.” It highlights instances of “inappropriate use of Section 702 authorities, specifically U.S. person queries.”
In 2021 alone, the FBI carried out over 3.3 million queries via the Section 702 database, as indicated in a government transparency report. Furthermore, a 2021 report from the federal court responsible for FISA-related matters recorded 40 instances where the FBI accessed surveillance data for investigations into purely domestic crimes such as health care fraud and public corruption.
The FBI implemented new internal restrictions on Section 702 surveillance, but the White House report contends these adjustments are “insufficient to ensure compliance and earn the public’s trust.” It also exposes how the FBI misused its access to the database to run unauthorized searches related to domestic matters, further undermining its credibility.
Matthew Guariglia, a senior policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, opines that the FBI’s recurring misuse of the Section 702 database is indicative of its disregard for privacy and civil liberties. He states, “the Federal Bureau of Investigation simply cannot be trusted with conducting foreign intelligence queries on American persons.”
This controversial use of Section 702 has sparked political debate, particularly among Republicans unsettled by the FBI’s surveillance of former President Donald Trump’s allies. In response, a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–FL) has introduced a resolution to let FISA expire by the year-end, while bipartisan calls for reforming Section 702 are on the rise.
Contrarily, the intelligence community argues that blocking the reauthorization of this spying program would be a severe intelligence failure. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has appealed for reauthorization of the program, suggesting that measures be adopted to enhance compliance and oversight.