Secret Court: FBI Warrantless Searches Were Illegal

Some of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s warrantless searches through the National Security Agency’s enormous troves of communications data violated the law and the Constitution, according to secret surveillance court rulings partially declassified on Tuesday.

The bureau’s so-called backdoor searches, long regarded by civil libertarians as a government end-run around warrant requirements, were overly broad, the court found. They appear to have affected what a judge on the court called “a large number of individuals, including U.S. persons.” On one day in December 2017 alone, the court found, the FBI conducted 6,800 queries of the NSA databases using Social Security numbers. The government, in secret, conceded that there were “fundamental misunderstandings” among some FBI personnel over the standards necessary for the searches.

The redacted ruling was kept secret for a year. It represented the latest legal battle over the scope of post-9/11 mass surveillance that affects American freedoms in the name of counterterrorism. It was one of several secret court documents released Tuesday by the ODNI.

Judge James Boasberg of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court found last October that elements of FBI procedures for querying the databases and then purging irrelevant results–a mechanism to protect Americans’ privacy–“inconsistent with statutory minimization requirements and the requirements of the Fourth Amendment,” which protects Americans against unreasonable searches. 

“On one day in December 2017 alone, the court found, the FBI conducted 6,800 queries of the NSA databases using Social Security numbers.”

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