U.S. Intelligence Agencies Spied on 19,000 Campaign Donors
Did you know that U.S. intelligence agencies used a foreign surveillance tool to spy on 19,000 campaign donors, even though only eight had suspected foreign ties? This has prompted condemnation from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) during a June 13 hearing.
What is Section 702 of FISA?
Limited authority to gather foreign intelligence information is granted by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a post-9/11 surveillance tool that gives U.S. intelligence the power to target “(i) non-U.S. persons (ii) who are reasonably believed to be outside of the United States (iii) to acquire foreign intelligence information.” However, this power can grant an expanding circle of possible searches to the FBI and other intel agencies, who can use the same power against American citizens who had any interaction with targeted foreigners.
Abuses of the Program
Report after report has revealed abuses of the program, most prominently by the FBI. The most significant violations came in 2021, when it was revealed that the agency had used the foreign intelligence tool 3.3 million times against American citizens without a warrant or court approval.
After that report, the FBI vowed to make changes—a vow the agency has reiterated after an April 2023 report revealed that the agency had made 278,000 additional illegal queries of American citizens.
Targeting Congressional Campaign Donors
That report reveals that among those 278,000 queries, 19,000 were made against congressional campaign donors. But analysis of those 19,000 queries found that only eight were approved under the guidelines of Section 702.
It showed that an intelligence agency “conducted a batch query for over 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign. The analyst who ran the query advised that the campaign was a target of foreign influence, but NSD determined that only eight identifiers used in the query had sufficient ties to foreign influence activities to comply with the querying standard.”
It’s unclear which congressional campaign was targeted. However, the 2021 report also revealed that the tool had been used against a member of Congress. After review of the report and other information, Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), who is currently chairing a working group to reform FISA in the House, said he believed the person targeted was him.
Intelligence Agencies Downplay Abuses
During a June 13 hearing, Durbin said that the findings again raise questions about intelligence agencies’ ability to use the tool within the confines laid out in statute. Witnesses from U.S. intelligence agencies, however, downplayed the abuses, instead emphasizing its value as an intel-gathering tool.
One witness called it “an elegant program.” George Barnes, deputy director and senior civilian leader of the National Security Agency, called the program “agile and specific.” Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general, emphasized the importance of the tool, which he called “irreplaceable and invaluable” to presidential daily briefings. He said that around 59 percent of the president’s daily briefing materials came from Section 702, and said that practically 100 percent was derived at some point from Section 702 data.
Used Against Domestic Protestors
The most recent report ordered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the FISA watchdog, revealed that the intel-gathering mechanism had also been used against domestic protestors, including Jan. 6 and Black Lives Matter protestors.
“One hundred thirty-three people were [queried] during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest when, as the Justice Department itself concluded, quote, ‘There was no specific factual basis to think the searches would turn up,”
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