In leaked email, FBI official encourages agents to use warrantless wiretaps on Americans
By Cassie B. // May 15, 2024

A senior FBI official reportedly advised his agents to use the agency's warrantless surveillance authority against targets on American soil.

This is according to Wired, who obtained an internal e-mail in which Paul Abbate, a deputy director for the FBI, pressed his subordinates to find ways they can leverage Section 702 authority against U.S. citizens on American soil.

Part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Section 702 was originally set up in 2008 as a way to surveil threats from hostile actors who are taking part in crimes such as arms proliferation, terrorism, drug trafficking and cyber crimes. As long as one of the parties in the communications being surveilled is reasonably believed to be a non-citizen situated outside of the U.S., government agencies can compel American companies to intercept communications without a search warrant. It states that they can eavesdrop on a range of communications, including phone calls, emails and text messages, among others, without obtaining a search warrant.

However, Section 702 is often misused by the FBI, who has been accused of targeting journalists, American protesters and a sitting member of Congress with this authority. Despite the controversy, the program was extended for two more years in April after an extensive debate and over the objections of some conservative and progressive lawmakers.

In the e-mail obtained by Wired dated April 20, Abbate instructs employees to find ways to use the authority, writing: “To continue to demonstrate why tools like this are essential to our mission, we need to use them, while also holding ourselves accountable for doing so properly and in compliance with legal requirements.”

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He added: “I urge everyone to continue to look for ways to appropriately use US person queries to advance the mission, with the added confidence that this new pre-approval requirement will help ensure that those queries are fully compliant with the law.”

Some lawmakers, like Representative Zoe Lofgren (D- California) fear that Abbate is trying to convince FBI agents to spy on American citizens. She told Wired: “The deputy director’s email seems to show that the FBI is actively pushing for more surveillance of Americans, not out of necessity but as a default. This directly contradicts earlier assertions from the FBI during the debate over Section 702’s reauthorization.”

A “dramatic and terrifying” expansion of government surveillance authority

When Section 702 was reauthorized last month, Lofgren was one of several lawmakers sounding the alarm bells. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) described the move as “one of the most dramatic and terrifying expansions of government surveillance authority in history.”

He explained that in addition to giving the government the power to force any American who repairs or installs anything capable of transmitting or storing communications to spy on behalf of the government, it also prevents those who are forced to participate in this surveillance from speaking about it to anyone.

It is particularly relevant right now as political protesters are increasingly finding themselves at odds with authorities as they rally against Israel’s genocide in Gaza. In fact, in a meeting last year about reauthorizing the program, House Intelligence Chair Mike Turner presented a picture of Americans protesting the war in Gaza as part of his argument in favor of expanding the surveillance authority while implying they could be connected to Hamas terrorists.

Although one might argue that Section 702 cannot be used to target such individuals in the strictest sense, the FBI is apparently already looking for ways to skirt its restrictions and spy on everyone they consider a threat for whatever reason.

Sources for this article include:

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