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"The FBI's systematic misuse of these resources proves that it (and the rest of the federal government) simply can't be trusted to wield this sort of power," said one campaigner. "Let 702 die."
Friday's "alarming" revelations about U.S. law enforcement's abuse of a powerful surveillance tool "confirmed the worst fears of advocates" and likely further complicated a brewing battle in Congress over reauthorizing a constitutionally dubious spying law.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)—which is set to expire at the end of this year unless reauthorized by federal lawmakers—empowers the U.S. government to engage in warrantless surveillance of electronic communications. Although the law only authorizes targeting foreigners located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information, a massive amount of Americans' data is also collected.
On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), released a pair of redacted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions—one which revealed that in 2020 and early 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) misused the Section 702 database over 278,000 times.
"These unlawful searches undermine our core constitutional rights and threaten the bedrock of our democracy. It's clear the FBI can't be left to police itself."
The "persistent and widespread" violations by the FBI—which is part of the DOJ—include searches for information related to crime victims, protesters arrested after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, donors to a congressional candidate, and people suspected of breaching the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The New York Times reported that "a senior FBI official said that in those cases, the analysts misunderstood the standard and were required to undergo additional training," and a representative for the DOJ disclosed that the unidentified political candidate lost to an incumbent lawmaker.
The ODNI's statement about the court documents insists that "all of these compliance incidents occurred prior to FBI deploying a series of remedial measures beginning in the summer of 2021 and through 2022. As a result, these compliance incidents do not reflect FBI's querying practices subsequent to the full deployment of the remedial measures."
However, exposure of the FBI's conduct prompted fresh demands from civil liberties advocates in Congress and beyond for seriously reforming or even ending Section 702, with several critics casting doubt on claims that the bureau—and other agencies with access to the collected data—will behave absent outside intervention.
\u201cA recent internal FBI audit suggests that the new changes have reduced the rate of non-compliance from 18% to 4%. At first blush, that sounds pretty good. But there are serious questions about the methodology for the audit. 15/22\u201d— Elizabeth Goitein (@Elizabeth Goitein) 1684523216
"These abuses have been going on for years and despite recent changes in FBI practices, these systematic violations of Americans' privacy require congressional action," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) declared Friday. "If Section 702 is to be reauthorized, there must be statutory reforms to ensure that the checks and balances are in place to put an end to these abuses."
"I am disappointed at the extent of the redactions in the opinions released today," he added, pledging to pressure ODNI to inform the public about the interpretation of the law behind closed doors. "There is important, secret information about how the government has interpreted Section 702 that Congress and the American people need to see before the law is renewed."
House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) also weighed in, though he noted his hesitation to do so given that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has created the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government—which has been called the "Insurrection Protection Committee" and a "fascist power grab to evade accountability" by progressive lawmakers:
In the middle of Chairman Jordan's overzealous attack on federal law enforcement and the absurd claims advanced by the MAGA crowd on the weaponization subcommittee, I am hesitant to comment at all—but the abuse of FISA authority detailed in this opinion demands a response from all members of Congress. Section 702 exists only to protect the country from external threats to our national security. The government may only use it to target non-U.S. persons located outside of the United States. If the FBI insists on using it for routine domestic criminal investigations, without a warrant or probable cause, then perhaps they should not have access to this information at all. The problem is not that the FBI unlawfully targeted thousands of Americans of any particular political view. They appear to have conducted backdoor searches on Black Lives Matter protestors, January 6th rioters, and everyone in between. The problem is that they unlawfully targeted thousands of Americans. Period.
The FBI says that they have instituted new procedures to make this kind of abuse impossible. They have made that promise before. Without significant changes to the law to prevent this abuse, I will oppose the reauthorization of this authority.
Civil society groups that have for years sounded the alarm about Section 702 responded similarly to the latest revelations.
"Today's disclosures underscore the need for Congress to rein in the FBI's egregious abuses of this law, including warrantless searches using the names of people who donated to a congressional candidate," Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU's National Security Project, toldThe Associated Press Friday. "These unlawful searches undermine our core constitutional rights and threaten the bedrock of our democracy. It's clear the FBI can't be left to police itself."
The Washington Postnoted that "this is not the only time the FBI has been in trouble for the database. Another recent audit found multiple problems, including that the FBI used the database to search for the name of a member of Congress."
\u201cViolations revealed in previous FISC opinions include searches targeting a U.S. congressman; a local political party; multiple U.S. gov\u2019t officials, journalists, and political commentators; and two \u201cMiddle Eastern\u201d men who were seen loading cleaning supplies into a vehicle. 6/22\u201d— Elizabeth Goitein (@Elizabeth Goitein) 1684523215
"For the FBI to misuse Section 702 to spy on people protesting the killing of George Floyd, political donors, and victims of crimes is an unspeakable abuse of trust," said Demand Progress senior policy counsel Sean Vitka. "Congress must enact comprehensive privacy protections for people in the United States, against all forms of warrantless surveillance, or Section 702 must fall. If the administration wants to see this law survive in any form, it should publicly embrace this reality."
The Biden administration in recent months has urged Congress to reauthorize Section 702, including in a February letter to top Democratic and Republican lawmakers from Attorney General Merrick Garland and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence.
Vitka asserted that the "shocking" abuse is "unmatched since the days of J. Edgar Hoover," a former longtime FBI director also referenced by Jake Laperruque, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology's Security & Surveillance Project.
"Even with the long history of FBI misuse of FISA 702, these latest revelations should set off alarm bells across Congress," said Laperruque. "The systemic misuse of this warrantless surveillance tool has made FISA 702 as toxic as COINTELPRO and the FBI abuses of the Hoover years. Absent a full overhaul of Section 702 and related surveillance powers, Congress should not allow the law to be extended past this year."
"For decades, we've seen surveillance abuse target political dissidents and marginalized communities, and worried a defensive search exception for FISA 702 could be misused the same way," he added, referring to queries seeking data on someone who may be a victim or target of a foreign influence operation. "This shocking example of 'defensive searches' being an excuse to pull up the communications of a batch of 19,000 political donors without a warrant should end the discussion of whether any type of 'defensive search' exception is safe or acceptable.”
\u201cCongress must end Section 702's unconstitutional surveillance. https://t.co/gBoRHAJOjy\u201d— EFF (@EFF) 1684527076
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, said in a series of tweets Friday that "it's time to end this charade once and for all. The Fourth Amendment requires the government to show probable cause to a court if it wants to access Americans’ communications."
"Backdoor searches provide an end-run around this requirement under the best of circumstances and they are indefensible when the [government] is violating its own minimal standards in ways that directly impact Americans' rights to engage in political protest, donate to political campaigns, or just live their lives free from [government] scrutiny based on race or ethnicity," she added. "Congress should not authorize Section 702 without sweeping reforms, starting with a warrant requirement to conduct U.S. person queries of any data the government obtained without a warrant based on the claim that it was not targeting Americans."
In a Friday opinion piece for Fast Company, Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, argued that the data collected under Section 702 "is nothing short of a loaded gun aimed at the heart of a democracy, a lawless digital dragnet systematically abused by those who swore to uphold the law."
The campaigner continued:
As civil rights groups warned would happen, FBI agents just couldn't help themselves. Rather than follow the limits that were supposed to protect Americans from this international dragnet, agents used this terrifying tool to target protesters and domestic suspects. And the abuses should be chilling to all of us, no matter where we sit on the political spectrum...
It would have been disturbing if these sorts of egregious examples happened just a few times, but to see the FBI's systematic misuse of these resources proves that it (and the rest of the federal government) simply can't be trusted to wield this sort of power.
"If the FBI is willing to break the law this brazenly, Congress and the administration must acknowledge that there's no set of guardrails, no Band-Aid, that can fix 702 and keep the public safe," he concluded. "The only way to safeguard our data and our rights is to do what we should have done a long time ago: Let 702 die."
"No other retailer in U.S. history has come anywhere close to such enrichment at public expense," asserted one opponent of the nine-figure subsidy.
Opponents of a contentious $1 billion subsidy for online retail behemoth Amazon's data centers in Oregon on Friday decried what one critic called "corporate welfare" for a company that raked in more than a half a trillion dollars in revenue last year.
Amazon already has four data centers in Morrow County, Oregon and plans on building six more Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-computing facilities there. Earlier this month, Port of Morrow commissioners approved tax breaks for Amazon with an estimated value of $1 billion.
"With this new award, we now know of $6.1 billion in subsidies given to Amazon in the United States alone," said Kasia Tarczynska, a senior analyst at the public interest watchdog Good Jobs First. "No other retailer in U.S. history has come anywhere close to such enrichment at public expense."
\u201cAmazon gets a $1 billion corporate welfare payment for AWS data centers in rural Oregon, with residents getting one day's notice before the vote. https://t.co/4r0UzGAM7x\u201d— David Dayen (@David Dayen) 1684516422
While local officials hope the incentives will secure $12 in billion new investment by Amazon in the remote county on the Columbia River about 185 miles east of Portland, opponents bristled when residents were given just one day's notice before the final commission vote.
Oregonians are also angered by Amazon's efforts to fight proposed state legislation that would compel data centers to use clean energy.
In a statement following the commission's vote, Amazon said that "we've been an active member of eastern Oregon communities since 2011, investing more than $15.6 billion while supporting thousands of local jobs."
"Investments like these create and support high-paying, highly skilled jobs in local communities, and projects that benefit local education, healthcare, public services, and more," the company added.
Common Dreamsreported last year that Amazon dodged $5.2 billion in federal corporate taxes in 2021 while paying an effective tax rate of 6%, far lower than the statutory 21%.
\u201cAmazon made $514 billion in 2022.\n\nWe can\u2019t believe we need to say this, but here goes: Amazon. does. not. need. tax. breaks.\n\nhttps://t.co/bAvzbQTWXD\u201d— Patriotic Millionaires (@Patriotic Millionaires) 1684005900
Good Jobs First executive director Greg LeRoy said Friday that "in a 2016 study looking at major internet companies and their data center subsidies, we found a cost per job of almost $2 million."
"The AWS grab in Morrow could be several times that," he added. "At these obscene costs, the only clear outcome is a massive transfer of wealth from Oregon taxpayers to Amazon shareholders."
As Good Jobs First argued: "Oregonians should not pay Amazon to do what it would do anyway."
"The BLET is currently working to secure similar sick leave agreements with the other Class 1 railroads," said the union's national president, "and I hope this settlement will help bring those negotiations to a positive conclusion."
A leading railroad workers' union this week struck a landmark deal with industry giant Norfolk Southern to provide more than 3,300 employees up to seven days of paid sick leave each year.
"This is a big day for the BLET," declared Scott Bunten, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen general chairman. "Our members are the heart of the railroad, and this agreement is a major win in our tireless efforts to improve the quality of their experience on and off the job."
Similarly describing the union's engineers as "the hardest-working folks on the railroad," fellow BLET chairman Jerry Sturdivant said the agreement "recognizes the critical contributions our members make to keep the railroad and the American economy running."
Under the deal, Norfolk Southern engineers will get five paid sick days annually, plus they will be able to use up to two additional days of existing paid time off as sick leave. The new policy will take effect once union members ratify an accompanying quality-of-life agreement, which they are expected to vote on within the next month.
\u201cThe Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and Norfolk Southern Corporation announced Thursday that they have reached an agreement to provide up to seven paid sick days per year to BLET members. \n\nRead the full story: https://t.co/lsuG4IACyw\u201d— Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (@Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) 1684442616
"We are proud to be the first to have reached a paid sick leave agreement for our dedicated BLET membership," said Dewayne Dehart, another union general chairman. "This trailblazing new deal ensures that engineers finally have access to the time they need and deserve to manage their personal well-being."
Although Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw refused to commit to seven paid sick days for all employees while testifying before Congress in March, this week he also highlighted the historic nature of the new agreement, saying it "continues our industry-leading effort to enhance quality of life as we become the first railroad to reach an engineer sick leave deal."
According to a joint statement from the company and union, "With this agreement, almost all Norfolk Southern craft employees—approximately 98%—have entered into paid sick leave deals."
As The Associated Pressreported:
This deal follows the model established by the conductors union in its first sick-time deals with Norfolk Southern and CSX. Those train crew workers are getting better deals, with five days of sick time, than the other smaller rail unions that received four days of sick time. But train crews work much more unpredictable and demanding schedules than other rail workers.
The railroads have also agreed to pay workers for any unused sick time at the end of the year.
"The BLET is currently working to secure similar sick leave agreements with the other Class 1 railroads," said Eddie Hall, the union's national president, "and I hope this settlement will help bring those negotiations to a positive conclusion."
Railroad employees and their unions have generated national discussions about paid leave over the past year. In December, President Joe Biden signed related legislation—which blocked a looming strike and forced through a White House-brokered agreement that did not include any paid sick leave—while ignoring calls for an executive order guaranteeing rail workers sick days.
Since then, Norfolk Southern has become a household name, and federal lawmakers have proposed rail safety reforms, in the wake of a company train that carried hazardous materials derailing in East Palestine, Ohio—near the Pennsylvania border—in February.
The new deal comes as paid sick leave advocates on Capitol Hill renew their push for national legislation. Joined by leaders from nursing and railway unions on Wednesday, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the Healthy Families Act (HFA) and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act.
Mike Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, said that "the BRS would like to thank those members of Congress who support paid sick leave. Rail workers were deemed essential during the pandemic. They came to work sick because they didn't want to miss a day's pay, or worse be disciplined for their absence."
"This legislation is important to rail workers," Baldwin added of the HFA. "It is an essential need, and it isn't just a frivolous want."