Reps. Jordan and Turner Demand FBI Director Provide Details on Astonishing 3.3 Million Warrantless Queries
By the end of next year, Congress must reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) or let it expire. Congress let another significant authority – Section 215, which allowed the government to collect Americans’ information from business records – to expire in 2020. After the recent revelation that the FBI is conducting millions of searches of Americans’ information without a warrant, it is suddenly a little less unthinkable that Congress might actually allow 702 to lapse.
This thought has to occur to FBI Director Christopher Wray after two ranking Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Judiciary Committee fired off a letter asking for detail about the recent report that the FBI conducted more than 3.3 million queries on people in the United States from December 2020 to November 2021. Given that these Republicans, Michael R. Turner and Jim Jordan, are believed by most political prognosticators to likely chair their respective committees after the upcoming elections, one would expect that Director Wray is pondering the letter on his desk with a new seriousness.
Reps. Jordan and Turner, noting that U.S. person queries had jumped 250 percent from the prior year, asked for the total number of unique query terms that involve U.S. citizens and legal aliens. They also asked for “an explanation of the facts and circumstances of the approximately 1.9 million U.S. person queries that are apparently the result of an FBI investigation into alleged Russian hackers who sought to compromise U.S. critical infrastructure.” What was the rationale, they asked, for so many U.S. person queries for this concern? Why were these searches found to be compliant with the FBI’s Section 702 procedures?
Reps. Jordan and Turner also asked why the FBI four times accessed the contents of Section 702 information without first obtaining an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). What was the basis for each query? What manner of content was accessed? When did the FBI discover each violation and report it to the FISC?
For years, Members of Congress have asked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for answers to similar questions about FBI practices. For years, their questions have gone into the round file. Reps. Jordan and Turner reiterated these questions with renewed vigor. One of the most intriguing of their questions asks why agents must obtain attorney approval before conducting a batch of 100 or more queries, but not below that number. What was the frequency of the queries of FISA-approved data for 99 or fewer questions? This distinction suggests a major loophole in FBI practice.
As Director Wray ponders these questions, perhaps he may find that the prospect of incipient chairmanships concentrates the mind wonderfully.