The FBI searched troves of communications sucked up by the National Security Agency for information on ‘racially motivated violent extremists’ without a warrant, ignoring previous warnings it was breaking the law.
The FBI’s requests for access to masses of electronic communications harvested by the National Security Agency (NSA) is revealed in a newly declassified report from the United States’ secret surveillance court.
It shows the FBI has continued to perform warrantless searches through the NSA’s most sensitive databases for routine criminal investigations, despite being told by a federal judge in 2018 and 2019 that such a use was an unconstitutional breach of privacy.
The FBI focused many of its warrantless searches – commonly referred to as backdoor queries – on suspected ‘far-right’ domestic terrorists, The Daily Beast reported.
It’s unclear from the heavily-redacted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court report whether the FBI uncovered any criminal extremist behavior or made any arrests resulting from the searches.
In its gathering of ‘foreign’ communications data, the NSA often sweeps up Americans’ communications, too.
It’s unclear how many Americans had their data viewed by the FBI in its search for ‘racially motivated’ extremists.
The FISA report did reveal that a single request for data to the NSA from an FBI analyst for information on a suspected domestic terrorists returned 33 hits.
It’s not clear how many other requests were tied to the hunt for alleged racially motivated extremists, nor who at the FBI asked for the data or approved the request.
A senior FBI official told DailyMail.com the FBI had taken ‘numerous steps’ to comply with the FISA court guidance over the past 18 months.
The official wouldn’t answer other questions on specifics and referred questions to the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Those agencies didn’t immediately return requests for comment from DailyMail.com.
Under Director Christopher Wray, the FBI has continued to conduct warrantless searches, potentially in breach of the US Constitution. Above, he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March
The NSA’s vast dragnet of electronic data is only supposed to be used by domestic agencies such as the FBI in cases of national security. Above is the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland
Judges with the FISA secret surveillance court have repeatedly called out the FBI for its unconstitutional use of the NSA’s electronic data. Above is US Cyber Command, home to the NSA headquarters in Maryland
The FBI did not say what it did with seized data that turned out to be harmless or irrelevant to its search, or whether its access to the NSA’s electronic dragnet led to any arrests or convictions.
In 2019, a federal court ruled the US government can collect information about its citizens without obtaining a warrant if the information is gathered inadvertently while legally carrying out surveillance of non-nationals abroad, such as what the NSA does routinely.
The NSA monitors vast troves of global communications, including text messages, phone calls, emails and messages on encrypted apps, but is constrained by US law on how it uses the information against US citizens.
Incidental collection of Americans’ data is allowed, according to a 2019 federal court ruling.
However, databases of stored NSA information could violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The FBI has traditionally only been allowed to seek data in cases of national security.
But after the bureau began making requests for routine criminal investigations, the FISA courts have been cracking down on how the FBI can access the data of Americans who are caught in these sweeps.
The FBI has been repeatedly blasted by federal judges over its use of the NSA’s vast electronic sweep of emails, texts and other electronic data.
In October 2019, the agency was found to have performed tens of thousands of illegal searches on Americans.
It probed the NSA database for information on US citizens – when legally it only could have been used to gather foreign intelligence information or in cases of national security.
The National Security Agency, operating inside the United States, is authorized to collect communications of foreigners overseas for foreign intelligence purposes.
The searches potentially breach a person’s right to a fair trial, as The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from ‘unreasonable searches.’
A search of such raw data goes against the very same law that authorizes the surveillance program, the court ruled.
In December 2019, the top FISA judge called out the FBI for repeatedly submitting applications to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page that were riddled with errors and omissions, and ordered the government to inform the court on how it plans to reform the process.
The scathing four-page order from Rosemary Collyer, the presiding judge over the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), marks the first time the court has responded to the controversy, which became public last week with the release of a report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (seen above speaking to the press at the White House on March 1) announced an internal review to assess the threat of violent extremism from within the Department of Homeland Security
The internal review is part of a broader administration focus on domestic threats following the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. At least 52 of the more than 400 people arrested for taking part in the Capitol riot are either former or current military, law enforcement, or government service employees, according to ABC News
The NSA’s vast dragnet of electronic data is only supposed to be used by domestic agencies such as the FBI in cases of national security.
In the newly released FISA report, which was dated November 2020, a judge says the FBI’s Fourth Amendment violations were still ‘apparently widespread’.
In a statement, a senior FBI official said the majority of the ‘query incidents referenced in this report occurred prior to implementation of the FBI’s system changes and training regarding the additional documentation requirements discussed above’.
FBI searches also looked into ‘health care fraud, transnational organized crime, violent gangs’ and ‘public corruption and bribery’.
‘The FBI is dedicated to full adherence with FISA’s requirements and to keeping the American people safe from national security threats,’ the senior FBI official said.
It’s unclear if they have ever faced any legal repercussions for the repeated breaches.
Revelations that the FBI are continuing to access the NSA’s database without a warrant comes as Congress is considering new domestic terror laws in response to the January 6 attacks on the Capitol.
Security agencies and police departments are also pledging to rid their ranks of violent extremists.
On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced an internal review to assess the threat within the agency.
Senior DHS officials will immediately begin the review, which is aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to extremism within the ranks of a sprawling agency that includes the Coast Guard and the nation’s immigration enforcement organizations, Secretary Mayorkas said in a letter announcing the effort.