Some FBI electronic surveillance activities violated the constitutional privacy rights of Americans swept up in a controversial foreign intelligence program, a secretive surveillance court ruled. The ruling deals a rare rebuke to U.S. spying programs that have withstood legal challenge and review since they were dramatically expanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The opinion resulted in the FBI agreeing to apply new procedures, including recording how the database is searched to detect future compliance issues, reports the Wall Street Journal. The intelligence community disclosed Tuesday that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court last year found that FBI’s efforts to search data about Americans ensnared in a warrantless internet-surveillance program intended to target foreign suspects violated the law as well as the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. The issue was made public by the government only after it lost an appeal of the judgment before another secret court.
The court said that in at least a handful of cases, the FBI had been improperly searching a database of raw intelligence for information on Americans—raising concerns about oversight of the program, which operates in near total secrecy. The October 2018 court ruling identified improper searches of raw intelligence databases by the bureau in 2017 and 2018 that were deemed problematic in part because of their breadth. They involved queries related to thousands or tens of thousands of pieces of data, such as emails or telephone numbers. In one case, the FBI was using the intelligence information to vet its personnel and cooperating sources. Federal law requires that the database only be searched by the FBI as part of seeking evidence of a crime or for foreign-intelligence information. The opinion was written by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, who serves on the FISA Court.