Politics

Number of searches on Americans in FBI foreign intelligence database fell in 2023, report shows


The number of searches about Americans conducted by the FBI in a controversial foreign intelligence database fell by almost half in 2023 compared to the previous year, according to a new report released Tuesday by the U.S. intelligence community.

The FBI’s searches, some of which were deemed to be improper in the past, were a flashpoint in a months-long fight in Congress over the reauthorization of a surveillance program referred to as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The number of FBI queries of what the report terms “U.S. persons” from December 2022 to November 2023 fell to 57,094 from 119,383 in the previous year, according to the Annual Statistical Transparency Report, which is issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“These reductions occurred following a number of changes FBI made to its systems, processes, and training relating to U.S. person queries,” the report said.

A senior Department of Justice official who briefed reporters on Tuesday said this year’s total figure did not specify how many queries may have been improper, but said the Justice Department was conducting regular audits of the bureau’s queries.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers raised objections to elements of the surveillance program that they argued infringed on Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, and cited past misuse by the FBI. In its push for reauthorization, the Biden administration argued that Section 702 was a vital tool for protecting U.S. national security.  

President Biden signed the bill into law on April 20, reauthorizing Section 702 for another two years.

Issued every year since the unauthorized disclosures of domestic surveillance programs by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, the report offers an accounting of the intelligence community’s use of surveillance authorities, some of which can affect Americans.

The overall number of targets under Section 702 — all of which are categorized as “non-U.S. persons” —- rose to 268,590 from 246,073 in 2022, continuing a steady pattern of year-to-year growth.  

Rebecca Richards, chief of ODNI’s Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency, said Tuesday that the total number of targets “has increased over time as the [intelligence community] continues to address both its customers’ traditional and emerging foreign intelligence requirements.” 

The report also notes a significant increase in the number of U.S. persons “unmasked” by the NSA in response to specific requests by government agencies. In 2023, that number rose to 31,330 from 11,511 in 2022.

“Unmasking” refers to the disclosure of identities that are redacted in classified materials, which certain government agencies and officials can request.

A senior intelligence official explained that the term “U.S. person” could refer to “technical” and “machine” identifiers, including IP addresses associated with U.S. companies, and said this year’s marked increase in unmasking requests was related to a single intelligence report on attempts by a foreign cyber actor to compromise American critical infrastructure. 

“‘U.S. person means more than just a human being,'” Richards added. “It was related to the critical infrastructure in those U.S. companies. And so that is still U.S. person information, even though it’s not about … an individualized human being.”

Officials who briefed reporters Tuesday would not offer additional details about the foreign actor or the type of infrastructure in question.

U.S. officials have warned in recent months of a sprawling campaign by Chinese hackers targeting American infrastructure in an operation known as “Volt Typhoon,” and have said malicious actors from Russia and Iran continue to pose a risk to key sectors.  



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