WASHINGTON — FBI searches for Americans’ information collected under a warrantless surveillance program declined significantly over the past year, according to a government report released Friday.
The number of searches plunged 94%, from 3.4 million to about 204,000 in the 12-month period ending in November, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in its Annual Statistical Transparency Report, which outlines the intelligence community’s use of national security surveillance authorities.
The New York Times first reported the drop in searches.
The decline followed changes adopted by the FBI in the summer of 2021 designed to place more restrictions on the use of warrantless surveillance authorities. A judge and a Justice Department inspector general report had accused the FBI of abusing its authority under the Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
"This reduction occurred following a number of changes FBI made to its systems, processes, and training relating to U.S. person queries," the report said.
Section 702 allows government agencies to collect messages of foreigners overseas, including when they communicate with U.S. citizens. The program permits intelligence agencies and the FBI to search the archive of intercepted messages using Americans’ names, phone numbers or email addresses, even though the information was gathered without a warrant.
That authority is due to expire at the end of this year.
Some lawmakers on Friday called the drop in warrantless FBI searches a positive step, and said the law allowing the surveillance program should not be renewed unless Congress makes major changes to it.
“We need to pass substantive and meaningful reforms to help deter abusive behavior by the FBI in the FISA process,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Illinois, leader of the bipartisan FISA 702 Working Group.
“Without additional safeguards, a clean reauthorization of 702 is a non-starter,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said the decline in FBI searches showed recent changes undertaken had produced positive results and that Congress should follow up with more protections of civil liberties.
“The transparency report released today provides strong evidence that the reforms already put in place, particularly at FBI, are having the intended effects. Congress’ task will be to build on that success and put in place additional safeguards to ensure this critical tool is used appropriately and in a way that protects our national security, our safety, and our civil liberties,” Himes said.
Top intelligence and law enforcement officials say the surveillance tool is crucial to preventing terrorist attacks and foreign espionage. But critics argue it is open to abuse and threatens civil liberties and privacy rights.
CIA Director William Burns said this month that Section 702 has been crucial for efforts to stop drug cartels moving fentanyl across the U.S. border. Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told lawmakers in March that the law has helped U.S. intelligence agencies counter China’s spying efforts.