White House Panel Says FBI Access to Surveillance Tool Should be Cut Back

August 1, 2023

A White House panel of intelligence advisers on Monday concluded that the FBI’s access to a trove of electronic data, including emails and texts, should be reduced. 

The recommendation is counter to efforts by the Biden Administration to preserve the spying program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which has the power to sweep in electronic information from U.S. tech providers. 

The Biden Administration has been aggressively lobbying lawmakers to keep the surveillance program intact.

However, as recently as July, the he chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court disclosed that FBI employees had wrongly searched foreign intelligence data for the names of at least one U.S. Senator and a state Senator. According to the opinion, another FBI employee ran a query using the Social Security number of a state judge who complained of civil rights violations by a municipal chief of police. 

The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, consisting of current and former officials and security experts, recommended that FBI searches be limited to foreign intelligence matters—as is standard at other U.S. intel agencies. The panel also recommended disallowing hunts for evidence of crime in cases not related to national security.

At the same time, however, the White House panel warned that not renewing the surveillance power would be a catastrophic knee-capping of U.S. intelligence agencies in their defense of national security. 

“If Congress fails to reauthorize Section 702, history may judge the lapse of Section 702 authorities as one of the worst intelligence failures of our time,” the panel stated.

Republicans had supported Section 702 when it was created under the Bush Administration. However, recent criticism of the FBI for its investigations into former President Trump as well as Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election have given rise to opposition among GOP lawmakers.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Democrats have long raised concerns that the surveillance program threatens Americans’ civil liberties. 

In a statement last month, FBI Director Chris Wray said that recent changes to the program have led to a “significant improvement,” adding that “Section 702 is critical in our fight against foreign adversaries.”

In fact, since those changes, FBI data searches on Americans has plummeted. According to a report from the Office of National Intelligence, FBI searches on U.S. citizens’ data had dropped 94% between November 2021 and November 2022, from 3.4 million to roughly 204,000.

It’s up to Congress to act to renew Section 702 of FISA—or not—before it expires on December 31.

PHOTO: FBI Headquarters, Washington DC

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