National Security

Intel community surveillance declined in 2020

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The number of surveillance warrants sought by the intelligence community largely declined over the last year even though, in some cases, a greater percentage of U.S. citizens were involved in their work. 

The intelligence community sought Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders against 451 individuals in 2020, just a fraction of the 1,833 it sought in 2018.

The annual statistic transparency report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) shows a decline in court-approved surveillance in terrorism and espionage investigations starting in 2019 — the same year the FBI came under criticism for its use of a warrant to wiretap the phone of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

A late 2019 report from the Department of Justice’s inspector general found the FBI failed to follow protocol when seeking surveillance on Page, while a subsequent report found widespread issues in how the bureau seeks permission to spy on potential targets.

Such warrants, however, have been on the decline since they peaked in 2015, and ODNI officials said there were numerous factors in requests for warrants in 2020 hitting an all-time low.

“The pandemic was the single event with the biggest impact to human behavior worldwide since the Second World War,” Ben Huebner, chief of ODNI Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy, and Transparency said in a call ahead of the report’s release, according to The New York Times.

“That means it also had an impact on our foreign intelligence targets.”

The data however, did show an uptick in the number of “U.S. persons” living abroad who were targeted with surveillance efforts. In 2018 and 2019, 13 percent and 15 percent of FISA targets living abroad were U.S. citizens or residents, respectively. That figure jumped to 22 percent in 2020.

The number of foreign targets of the U.S. intelligence community remained above 200,000 for the second year in a row.

Tags FISA Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Office of the Director of National Intelligence

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