Touting reforms designed to protect Americans’ privacy, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday that the number of times the FBI searched U.S. citizens’ information in a database of warrantless surveillance dropped by more than 93% in 2022.
“And that is not an aberration,” Wray said during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, adding that compared with 2020 levels, the 2022 number was about 85% lower.
The surveillance program, known as Section 702, allows U.S. spy agencies to collect foreigners’ online communications for intelligence purposes, but controversially, FBI analysts are also allowed to search Americans’ data “incidentally” collected under the program. Civil liberties advocates call the warrantless searches unconstitutional.
The program is set to expire at the end of the year, and Wray and other top intelligence officials urged lawmakers to reauthorize it.
While Wray did not disclose the total number of searches the FBI conducted in 2022, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has reported that the FBI in 2021 ran nearly 3.4 million queries of individuals in the U.S. That suggests that the number of such queries in 2022 stood at a little more than 200,000.
Critics say the warrantless searches infringe on Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.
Reacting to Wray’s comments, Elizabeth Goitein, senior director for liberty and national security at the Brennan Center for Justice, tweeted that even with the sharp drop in the number of queries, “the FBI is conducting up to 559 warrantless searches for Americans’ phone calls, texts, and emails every day.”
But Wray said concerns over the FBI’s use of the data predate “important reforms” that the bureau has implemented in recent years “to make sure people are using the authority in a surgical and judicious way.”
Among the reforms, he cited the creation of an internet audit office, changes to the bureau’s database system to prevent inadvertent searches, and new oversight and preapprovals.
“We take very seriously our role as stewards of these authorities,” Wray said.
Originally enacted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been increasingly used by U.S. intelligence and security agencies to combat a range of new threats, officials say.
“It is hard to overestimate, frankly, the importance of this authority to our work across the board,” Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told lawmakers. “FISA section 702 provides unique intelligence on foreign intelligence targets at a speed and reliability that we cannot replicate with any other authority.”
Wray said the FBI increasingly uses Section 702 to “protect American victims from malicious cyber actors.”
Section 702’s reauthorization faces an uphill battle in Congress, where a coalition of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats are demanding major changes before greenlighting renewal.
Republican Senator Mike Lee said last week that there was “not a chance in hell we’re going to be reauthorizing [Section 702] without some major, major reforms.”
“Your department is not trusted, because it has been politicized,” Lee told Attorney General Merrick Garland during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, echoing a long-standing Republican accusation.
Garland rejected the Republican charge.