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FBI's warrantless searches of Americans' data plummeted following reforms, report finds

FBI searches of U.S. citizens' electronic data — under a warrantless surveillance program — plunged significantly last year, according to an annual report released Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Searches dropped from more than 3.4 million in 2021, to just over 204,000 in 2022, according to the report, a decline of nearly 94%. The decline follows a series of major reforms instituted by the FBI, which had been accused by lawmakers and civil liberties advocates of overreach and abuses of its existing authority.  

The reduction was the result of changes to FBI "systems, processes, and training relating to U.S. person queries," the report, compiled by ODNI, found.

Other U.S. agencies, including the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), also acknowledged making changes to the way their U.S. person queries were conducted or counted, resulting in smaller revisions. 

"Reducing our current numbers was not the goal of our reforms. And in fact, this number could well increase again in future years," a senior FBI official told reporters in a briefing on Friday. "However, what this decrease does show is how significant an effect our reforms have had on the FBI's querying practice overall."

Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), U.S. agencies are authorized to collect, via telecommunications providers, electronic data – including phone calls, text messages and emails – of foreigners overseas, even if those communications involve U.S. citizens. Those records, which do not require a warrant to obtain, can then be searched for information related to national security investigations.  

ODNI's statistical overview has been released annually since 2014, following the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. It acknowledges that trends are prone to fluctuation year-to-year, as agencies' use of the authorities can be influenced by world events, technological changes and target behaviors.  

It comes amid an intensifying debate in Congress about the reauthorization of legal authorities permitted under Section 702, which is due to expire at the end of this year. It was last renewed in 2018.

"While there was a sharp decline in U.S. person queries from December 2021 to November 2022, it is incumbent upon Congress, not the Executive Branch, to codify reforms to FISA Section 702," Rep. Darin LaHood and House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Mike Turner, both Ohio Republicans, said in a statement Friday.  

"Without additional safeguards, a clean reauthorization of 702 is a non-starter," they said.  

Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the House Intelligence Committee's ranking member, also said additional reforms were needed, but praised the FBI for making effective inroads. 

"The transparency report released today provides strong evidence that the reforms already put in place, particularly at FBI, are having the intended effects," he said, adding Congress would have to "build on that success."  

Top intelligence officials have said that the authorities allowed under Section 702 are essential to protecting U.S. national security. In congressional testimony in March, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Section 702 had been "crucial" in counterintelligence matters, including tracking China's efforts to send spies into the United States. NSA director Gen. Paul Nakasone called it, "the #1 authority that we need."  

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